Amerks’ Performance Brings Sabres’ Organizational Depth Into Question

The Buffalo Sabres have now missed the playoffs for the 10th straight season, tying the all-time NHL record for the longest playoff drought. In seasons past, however, the Sabres at least had one shining spot in their organization to brag about: their AHL affiliate Rochester Americans, who traditionally finished near the top of their division standings, and provided plenty of optimism for the future. That was not the case this season, though, as the Amerks skated to one of their worst seasons in recent memory, leaving the Sabres with more questions than answers heading into the offseason.

Amerks Finish Near Bottom of North Division

The Amerks ended their season with a win over the weekend against their rival Utica Comets at Blue Cross Arena in downtown Rochester, tying the ribbon on their historic 65th season in the AHL. Despite ending on a high note, though, the 2020-21 season did not bring much else in the way of good stories for the Sabres’ AHL affiliate.

The Amerks finished with an 11-15-2-1 record, which was good for just 25 points in the standings, and placed sixth out seven teams in the North Division, ahead of only the Binghamton Devils. They limped to the finish line toward the end of the season, winning just 3 of their final 10 games. The Amerks scored just 89 total team goals, while allowing 116 goals against, giving them a minus-27 goal differential on the season.

Amerks Team Leaders: Players, Goalies & More

This season was one like no other, and the unique challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic were not going to make anything easy on the Amerks this season. Then again, the same could be said for every other team, too. That being said, the Sabres had a few key prospects they would be keeping an eye on all season, hoping some could develop their skills and show promise as future Sabres players.

Nothing seemed to go the Sabres’ way this season, however, and the players the organization had in mind heading into the AHL season didn’t produce much offense, if any. In fact, the highest producers on the Sabres’ farm team this season likely won’t make their way onto the big club’s roster regardless of how this season went. A prime example is the Amerks’ leader in goals, Remi Elie, who potted 10 goals this season.

Elie is a good replacement player at best, and in his few, short stints with the Sabres has been serviceable as nothing higher than a fourth-line forward. That’s not exactly the player you’d expect to lead your AHL club in goals. Brett Murray was second on the team with nine goals, while Michael Mersch was third with eight goals.

Brett Murray Rochester Americans Tyler Wotherspoon Lehigh Valley Phantoms
Brett Murray, Rochester Americans and Tyler Wotherspoon, Lehigh Valley Phantoms (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

In the assists department, the young Sabres prospects showed more promise than the veteran players. Defensive prospect Oskari Laaksonen notched 15 assists to lead the team, while Murray and Mersch tied for second with 11 assists each. Another young defenseman, Mattias Samuelsson, recorded 10 assists, which was good for third on the team. At the end of the season, the leading points scorers on the Amerks ended up being Murray (20), Elie and Mersch (19), and Laaksonen (17).

When it comes to goalies, it was all Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. Luukkonen, the Sabres’ second-round pick in the 2017 draft, led all Amerks goalies with seven wins on the season, while four others were tied with one win each. Dustin Tokarski led all goalies in save percentage (SV%) at .932, while Michael Houser (.924) and Luukkonen (.888) followed behind him.

Rating Notable Sabres Prospects’ Performances

The Sabres had some marquee prospects hit the ice for the Amerks this season, including 2020 first-round pick Jack Quinn, who many analysts were touting as the No. 1 goal-scorer in last year’s draft. Quinn didn’t quite show off his goal-scoring prowess as much as Sabres fans might have hoped, but he did have a decent rookie campaign at the professional level.

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Quinn played in 15 games for the Amerks, and scored two goals and seven assists for nine points, with both of his goals coming on the power play. He had a shooting percentage of 8%, which is impressive for a rookie at that level. While the offensive production wasn’t quite where some expected it to be, next season could be a breakout one for the future Sabres star, and he’ll be the top name to keep an eye on, along with players that made their way into the NHL lineup this season and were mainstays, like Arttu Ruotsaleinen and Will Borgen.

William Borgen Rochester Americans
William Borgen, Rochester Americans (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Matej Pekar is another prospect who drew a lot of interest from Sabres management this past season, and would make for a good power forward in an NHL lineup one day. Pekar scored one goal, five assists, and six points in 25 games played this season, and recorded a whopping 50 penalty minutes. The left-wing was the Sabres’ fourth-round choice in the 2018 draft.

Sabres’ Organizational Depth For Next Season

I would be remiss not to mention that the Amerks might have played so poorly, in part, because the Sabres played so poorly, and so numerous players had to be called up to dress for in the NHL. The taxi squad system this season also kept some players in limbo out of both of the lineups, and the injury bug hit the Sabres harder than most teams this season, too. Among the players who started the season with the Amerks but ended the year with the Sabres are Luukkonen, Borgen, Jacob Bryson, Murray, Mattias Samuelsson, Rasmus Asplund, and Ruotsaleinen. The Amerks had their roster depleted, especially on defense.

Given that I could see most of those names cracking the Sabres roster next season, there are gaping holes on the organizational depth chart that general manager Kevyn Adams desperately needs to address. Among those holes: NHL-caliber goaltending, defensive prospects, and depth forwards, along with some high-end forward prospects, too. The common denominator outside of the goaltending department is that Adams will need to address these issues through the upcoming entry draft. It’s time for the Sabres to start thinking about the selections they want to make, and with them projected to pick first overall for the second time in four seasons, they had better get it right this time.