With NHL reinforcements due to the dragging lockout, the AHL has become a much more competitive league. With the likes of Jordan Eberle, Adam Henrique, Cody Hodgson, Chris Kreider and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins filling the rosters of AHL teams, the intrigue has certainly been ratcheted up.
While the Buffalo Sabres' affiliate Rochester Americans are not the lone beneficiary of NHL-caliber talent during the lockout, they are not unfamiliar with the perks of having these players at their disposal. During the 2004-2005 NHL lockout, the Amerks went 51-19-10, which earned them the AHL's version of the Presidents' Trophy for having the best regular season record.
Despite losing in the conference semifinals, the Amerks can only hope to have a similar season this year, with last season's first-round exit from the Calder Cup Playoffs still stinging second year coach Ron Rolston. Here are three reasons they can improve on last season's result:
1. NHL-Talent Mixed With AHL Depth.
The Amerks invited 34 players to their training camp, including 20 forwards, 10 defenseman and four goalies. Of that 34, 27 have some level of AHL experience. Of that 27 with AHL experience, eight have played with the Sabres at some point.
With this mix of NHL talent and AHL experience, the Amerks have the ability to hit other teams with their depth. With Cody Hodgson, Marcus Foligno and Corey Tropp down full-time, that pushes last season's first liners Phil Varone, the team's leading scorer last season, and Luke Adam to the second line. They will likely be joined by first-round selection Zemgus Girgensons, who had a chance to make the Sabres roster from day one.
That depth is replicated on the defensive side with the high-end talents of Brayden McNabb and TJ Brennan and AHL veterans Alex Biega and Nick Crawford.
With Coach Rolston familiar with most of these players, it will be less time getting to know each other and the system and more time improving chemistry.
2. Beneficiaries of the Sabres' Defensive Depth.
It is not a very well-kept secret that the Sabres have a glut of defensive depth on their NHL roster.
The relevance to the Amerks?
A lot of that depth is young talents that the Sabres are perfectly happy allowing to grow in the AHL.
Predicting the Amerks' starting defenseman is not too a hard task.
Brayden McNabb and TJ Brennan will likely be the top-pairing for the Amerks, being the top-two defensive scorers for the team last season, both scoring 30 points last season in less than full seasons in Rochester.
Joining McNabb and Brennan will be newcomers Jerome Gauthier-Leduc and Mark Pysyk. Gauthier-Leduc is a prodigious offensive talent, racking up 74 points in 62 QMJHL contests with the Rimouski Oceanic last season. Pysyk is excellent in all three zones, which makes him a likely partner for the offensive-minded Gauthier-Leduc.
The final pairing will likely consist of two of the following four Amerks veterans: Alex Biega, Joe Finley, Nick Crawford and Drew Schiestel.
Finley has been the only one of the three to see time with the Sabres, playing five games, and doing so rather unremarkably.
Biega had an impressive season with the Amerks last year, including 23 points and a plus-munus of plus-10. Crawford had a solid season with the Amerks as well, posting 22 points in 70 games. Schiestel was traded halfway through the season, ending up with the Texas Stars, but resigned with the Amerks this offseason. [All via Hockey Database]
In all likelihood, the last two spots are Biega and Crawford's to lose, giving the Amerks blue line an imposing character for opposing offenses.
The Amerks can only hope McNabb and Brennan are able to improve upon their impressive stints with the Sabres, and Pysyk and Gauthier-Leduc are able to have the debuts McNabb and Brennan had with the Amerks. If they are able to do that, the tough back line will anchor the Amerks to a strong year.
3. Cody Hodgson
During the last lockout, there were a group of NHL-caliber, young players that were afforded the opportunity to play in the AHL against one another. This group included many of the stars of today's game, including Eric Staal, Jason Spezza, Mike Cammalleri and Ryan Miller.
All of those players shared some major similarities.
First, they all played significant time in the NHL prior to their AHL season. Second, they all underperformed in their time in the NHL prior to the lockout. Third, they all excelled in their AHL season. Lastly, they all became some of the game's biggest stars once they resumed play in the NHL during the 2005-2006 season.
Cody Hodgson joins the ranks of players this season that has the opportunity to replicate that trend.
The former tenth overall pick has shown flashes of dominance in his time with the Vancouver Canucks and Sabres, but has not yet lived up to the hype that surrounds that high of a selection.
Now is his chance.
Likely suiting up as the top line center for the Amerks, Hodgson will have every opportunity to show Lindy Ruff and Darcy Regier he's ready to take the next step.
With the exception of the Oklahoma City Barons who will be putting Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on the ice every night, Hodgson may be the most talented player in the AHL this coming season. That talent will be on display in all situations this upcoming season for the Amerks, and will allow Hodgson to grow in all aspects of his game.
If Hodgson can do what Staal, Spezza and Miller have done, the Amerks will be very hard to beat, and the Sabres will be very happy when the NHL starts up again.