By Tim Schmitt
ROCHESTER — Toronto, again. If Michael Ryan has to see Toronto on the opposite end of the ice one more time, he might think he’s in an icy reincarnation of the Harlem Globetrotters/Washington Generals rivalry.
Just last weekend, Ryan was matching wits with the National Hockey League’s Maple Leafs, flanking two-time Olympian Chris Drury in a home-and-home battle on Canadian national TV. He played more than 15 minutes during the Sabres thrilling 5-4 comeback, one in which the locals scored four goals in nine minutes, and was often matched against the Leafs big line, which features Mats Sundin. He added nearly 14 minutes the following night in a 4-1 loss.
But this week, Ryan’s jersey was adorned with an American flag, and the Boston native was comfortably back on the ice at Blue Cross Arena, rather than HSBC. His first two games back in Rochester again came against Toronto — the American Hockey League’s Marlies instead of the Leafs — and they were just as spirited, even if Don Cherry was absent. During a second-period scrum on Friday, while former Amerks Derek Roy and Thomas Vanek were blasting the New York Islanders, Rochester’s Anthony Stewart picked up Toronto’s David Cloutier and body slammed him to the ice. Both were ejected.
Ryan later buried the winner, an insurance tally, then added an assist on an empty netter — bypassing a shot at a hat trick to setup teammate Kamil Kreps — while collecting the first star in a 5-2 Amerks win.
And while Ryan’s emergency callup to the Sabres wasn’t as memorable as others — Roy and Jason Pominville, for example, both jumped from Rochester to the Sabres starting lineup last season, playing key roles as Buffalo reached the Eastern Conference finals — the speedy winger capably fulfilled his duties, just like Clarke MacArthur, Patrick Kaleta and Mark Mancari have with the big club.
Buffalo’s incredible run to the top of the Eastern Conference has been keyed by big names — Drury, Daniel Briere, and Jochen Hecht to name a few — but the organization’s ability to withstand defection and injury through the last two seasons is testament to the team’s AHL affiliate. And a most recent wave of stars who spent time in Rochester like Vanek, Pominville, Roy, Ryan Miller and now Drew Stafford appear poised to keep the Sabres among the league’s elite, even if Drury, Briere or both are lost to free agency.
Good coaching in the form of Randy Cunneyworth, a large minor-league market in Rochester and a premium on winning have made the Amerks more integral to the Sabres success than other AHL teams.
“They’ve drafted well, that’s the first key,” said Roy, who played 126 games in an Amerks uniform before becoming a fixture in Buffalo. “And they just run the same system. It’s a great place to learn.”
Talent starts it
Obviously, talent in the organization is the first, and maybe most crucial piece to the Sabres puzzle. Buffalo has been good with top picks like Vanek and Stafford, scored high on second-rounders like Roy and Pominville, and stolen players like Miller (fifth, 1999), Paul Gaustad (seventh, 2000) and Nathan Paetsch (seventh, 2003).
This is a stark contrast from, say, the 1993 draft that featured Denis Tsygurov, Ethan Philpott and Richard Safarik as the team’s top three picks. And although that was a decade prior, it’s not a stretch to say that draft and others like it played a major part in Buffalo’s three last-place Northeast Division finishes from 2001-2004. As further evidence, this year’s team can claim starters Henrik Tallinder, Maxim Afinogenov, and Brian Campbell from the 1997 draft.
“I’ll tell you flat out, it’s not one person,” said Cunneyworth, who’s been behind the Amerks bench for seven seasons. “There’s a process and many people have their hands in the jar. And everybody’s doing their job. It starts with the identifying of the player, the drafting of the player, then it’s a matter of working with the player and helping them along. Ultimately, it comes down to where players will be best used.”
Similar cities, coaches
In Friday’s win, Blue Cross Arena had nearly 8,000 seats filled for a regular-season meeting with the last place Marlies. When the postseason kicks off, the renovated arena will get more than 11,000. So playing in Rochester, which is comparable in size to Buffalo, readies players for the Buffalo experience.
“When we were No. 1 a couple years ago, they really came out and supported us,” said Daniel Paille, who has played parts of three seasons in Rochester. “It’s a great experience. I loved living there, it’s a great city. I was fortunate to play with a great bunch of players that were great guys both on and off the ice.”
Rochester’s fan base has long been one of the league’s best and the area’s commitment to the team is serious — a renovation to the arena cost $40 million in 1998. And although friction between the top of the two organizations could jeopardize the future of the relationship, the teams have kept hockey operations on the same page. Cunneyworth and Sabres coach Lindy Ruff played together on a line while in Buffalo, so it’s not surprising the two would see eye-to-eye about strategy.
Ryan, who’s spent time under both coaches this season, sees similarities between the two.
“I think they’re both players coaches. I don’t have a lot of experience with a lot of coaches, but when I was up and talking to guys in Buffalo, they said how much they like playing for Lindy,” Ryan said. “He’s not the kind of guy who’s going to call them out in the papers, he’s not going to embarrass them. He’ll tell you how he feels, but he’ll do it one-on-one and he sticks up for his guys. Randy’s like that, too.”
Developing future stars
Some players, like Vanek, needed time to adjust to the rigors of pro hockey. The first-round pick in 2003 watched from the press box a few times early in his lone season in Rochester. Others, like Jason Pominville, needed extra time to polish offensive skills. Pominville had 13 goals in 73 games during his first season as an Amerk. Last year, before he got the call to Buffalo, Pominville had 19 goals in 18 games.
“That’s a great example of a kid who overachieves, but he earns everything,” Cunneyworth said of Pominville. “We didn’t think, maybe, that he’d have the same numbers up there that he had down here, but his determination was evident. And he’s a guy who uses the strengths of others. It’s not all about one guy, and he recognizes that.”
Ryan could be in the same boat. He had just three goals in 2003-2004, but has blossomed in his fourth year in Rochester, registering 45 points in 43 games. He also leads the Amerks with a plus-17.
“Buffalo gives Rochester players a chance,” Paille said. “They just give patience to the players and have confidence in them. It’s all about being mature and working on the system. That’s what we did every day.”
With all the talent the Sabres have sucked from the farm, you’d expect the cupboard to be drying. But Cunneyworth insists there’s more to come, with the emergence of 2005 first-round pick Marek Zagrapan maybe the next success story in the making. Zagrapan had more points in March (11), than in all of the season’s first three months (10). And with goaltender Adam Dennis, defensemen Andrej Sekera and gritty forward Dylan Hunter, Buffalo’s future hasn’t been mortgaged.
“I think there is more (in the system),” Cunneyworth said. “Marek is a great example. He’s come a long way since day one. You see a guy here having so much fun. Always early to the rink, trying to get better. How far he can come along is up to him. He’s always got a smile on his fun.
“This is work. But it’s fun work.”