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Ullmark, Smith hope to be on cusp of joining Sabres

Goalie, forward at forefront of Rochester's resurgence

by Patrick Williams / Correspondent

UTICA, N.Y. -- Buffalo Sabres goalie prospect Linus Ullmark said the message during his time with Rochester of the American Hockey League is clear.

"If you look up at the rafters, you know what they expect," he said.

Ullmark, 24, is in his third season with Rochester. He has seen the good and the bad in one of the AHL's most storied markets.

The Buffalo/Rochester affiliation once generated the likes of future Sabres Ryan Miller, Thomas Vanek, and Martin Biron. It also produced three Calder Cup championships (1983, 1987, and a 1996 team that included current Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella).

This season has offered at least a taste of that success.

Rochester has managed a 25-10-5-5 record inside the competitive North Division, which includes AHL-leading Toronto and rival Syracuse. Rochester has 60 points and a .667 points percentage, which each rank third in the AHL.

Part of that is because of Ullmark, a 6-foot-4, 212-pound workhorse that can handle the heavy burden of a No. 1 AHL goaltender.

He is tied with Anders Lindback of Milwaukee for the AHL lead among goaltenders in games played (31), and he is second to Lindback in minutes (1,792). The workload has not affected his play; he is 17-7-6, his .928 save percentage is fifth in the AHL, and his 2.31 goals-against average is ninth.

After playing 20 NHL games in 2015-16, Ullmark is trying to stick for good. He made 44 saves in a 3-1 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Jan. 11.

"I'm trying my best to stay up [in Buffalo, but for the time being I'm happy where I am," said Ullmark, who played 17:36 in the AHL All-Star Game on Monday. "You always want to be better every day. That's what I'm trying to do. It's all about being a professional. It's a day-to-day struggle. That's mostly what I've been working on."

But Ullmark also has seen that AHL success is not found easily. Rochester has missed the playoffs in each of the past three seasons, and a Sabres AHL affiliate has not advanced past the first round since 2005.

When the Sabres hired general manager Jason Botterill on May 11, 2017, he took on a lengthy to-do list.

Among the tasks was to build a winning AHL culture that would feed development.

Botterill had learned the management side of pro hockey from some of the best in the business. He spent 10 seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins before departing for Buffalo.

One of the lessons Botterill took from Pittsburgh was the need to establish a winning AHL culture for his prospects.

Botterill spent eight seasons running the AHL side of the Penguins organization as GM of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. A perennial contender, his teams qualified for the playoffs in each of his eight seasons and won two division titles.

The 2017 Stanley Cup champion Penguins roster included the likes of goalie Matt Murray, defenseman Brian Dumoulin, and forwards Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, and Tom Kuhnhackl among its Wilkes-Barre/Scranton alumni.

Before hanging up his skates, Botterill played with Rochester, where he played with current coach Chris Taylor, who previously was an assistant coach in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Taylor and Botterill were teammates for three seasons in Rochester.

Together in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Botterill and Taylor saw what strong player development can mean for the NHL parent team; Pittsburgh made a habit of mining talent in the lower rounds of the NHL Draft.

Buffalo may have done so with Ullmark, a sixth-round selection (No. 163) in the 2012 NHL Draft.

Another such player could be 23-year-old forward C.J. Smith, who was undrafted and played three seasons at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell before signing with the Sabres on March 30, 2017.

Smith (5-11, 185) has delivered in the AHL; he leads Rochester in scoring and is third among AHL rookies with 38 points (14 goals, 24 assists. On Monday, he was named most valuable player of the AHL All-Star Game with a hat trick and two assists for the North Division.

"A lot [of the personal success] has had to do with coaching," Smith said. "[Taylor] has given me a lot of opportunity."

Taylor demands the sort of defensively responsible play required in the NHL. Defensively stingy, Rochester is fourth in goals-against per game (2.67) and 11th in shots-against (30.7). The Rochester penalty kill ranks third (86.3 percent).

But hockey goes beyond the ice. Cohesion matters in a league where players are competing for some of the same NHL jobs.

"Everybody is rooting for each other," Ullmark said. "There are no hard feelings when somebody gets a shot [in Buffalo]. That's what you want to do. We have a great group of guys that want the best for all of us, and that's what it comes down to.

"Everybody is happy for everybody's happiness."

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