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We realized early last year that we were too young in Rochester. It was one of those freakish years when we had something like 11 freshmen players coming out, and that doesn’t happen very often. - Jack Birch - Director Of Player Personnel
There’s optimism building in Rochester.
The Americans, the Panthers affiliate in the American Hockey League (AHL), have gone from a team that finished last in the Western Conference last season to a Calder Cup favorite this upcoming season.
For the Panthers and Amerks, who have spent the off-season signing AHL veterans Chris Taylor, Jeff Taffe, Clay Wilson, Graham Mink and Mike York to go along with Panthers prospects Keaton Ellerby
, Shawn Matthias
and Michal Repik
, the change didn’t occur overnight.
While watching a group of players go through an informal practice one recent morning at the incredible
ICE training facility, Panthers director of player personnel Jack Birch said the resurgence began to take shape just weeks after the Amerks stumbled out of the gate last year to a 3-18-0-3 start.
“We realized early last year that we were too young in Rochester,” Birch said. “It was one of those freakish years when we had something like 11 freshmen players coming out, and that doesn’t happen very often.”
While the Amerks and rookie coach Benoit Groulx were in the process of slowly turning things around, Birch said he and Panthers assistant GM Randy Sexton and former GM Jacques Martin met with Amerks ownership to determine a course of action.
“We said we wanted to go back to the model that Rochester used to have,” Birch recalled. “That model was the ownership group would put in five or six veteran players and they would become the face of the franchise and, in a lot of cases, they would be support personnel for the parent club.”
Birch said a list of 60 players were identified as strong minor-league signings who would fill the veteran leadership role and potentially play games for the Panthers.
“Looking back, of the top seven on the list, we got five of them,” Birch said.
Those five were Taffe, a point-a-game produced for the Penguins affiliate last season, Wilson, of the AHL’s top offensive defensemen, right winger Mink, former NHL regular and U.S. Olympian York, and Taylor.
Taffe, Wilson, Mink and York (NHL tryout) will be in South Florida competing for jobs when the Panthers open training camp Sept. 12.
“Taffe was listed as our No. 1 center, and he’s more than capable of playing with the big club,” Birch said. “We identified Wilson as, if not the top defensemen, one of the top two or three, and he’s more than capable of playing with the big club. Looking at the right side, we identified Mink as being the No. 1 right winger and went after him. And we added guys like Chris Taylor, who played in Rochester before playing in Germany the past three years, and Mike York, who’s not far removed from being an Olympic player.
“So now you sit down and look at it, combined with the guys we have in their second year like Repik and Matthias and Ellerby, (Jason) Garrison, (Andrew) Sweetland and (Mike) Duco, and you’re looking at a pretty good lineup. It’s one that certainly should be able to compete at the highest level of the American Hockey League.”
The only question mark in Rochester could be in goal. Birch, however, said all reports on goalie Alexander Salak have been positive. The young goalie arrived in South Florida this weekend for rookie camp beginning Monday at incredible
ICE.HEATLEY SINGING THE BLUES?
Unless something happens in the next week, Dany Heatley will have to report to Senators camp after spending the summer hoping to be traded. So what happens when he arrives? GM Bryan Murray and captain Daniel Alfredsson expect Heatley will have to address the boys in the dressing room.
“I would suspect that he would be asked questions by teammates,” Murray said. “Whether he gets up and makes a statement or not would be up to him. I would think that if he reports to camp and we get going here that it definitely has to be addressed.”
“No question, if that happens,” Alfredsson told TSN. “You can’t just wipe it under the rug and go on, you’re going to have to address the situation, and we’ll do that if that’s the case next week.”NICE TO FEEL WANTED
Alex Tanguay’s decision to sign in Tampa was probably made a little easier by a couple phone calls he received leading up to his decision from Vinny Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis.
“When Martin called, I was on the phone with Vincent,” Tanguay told ESPN. “I got them one after the other.”
Tanguay says he’s also comfortable in Tampa with coach Rick Tocchet, who was an assistant in Colorado during one of Tanguay’s seasons thereNOTES
Hall of Famer Serge Savard is finding success these days at the harness track. The 10-time Stanley Cup winner had two of his horses running in races totaling $1.68 million this weekend. Shadow Play, who won last year’s prestigious Litle Brown Jug, was racing in the $685,000 Canadian Pacing Derby while his unbeaten 2-year-old Malicious was going into the $1 million Metro Pace...While the sale of the bankrupt Coyotes is set for this weekend, don’t expect things to be wrapped up for several months if not longer…The Penguins are headed to the White House. The Stanley Cup winners will be honored Thursday by President Barack Obama...By the way, Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar spent his day with the Stanley Cup right here in South Florida at his home on Fisher Island…Former Panther Mark Parrish, one of several players still unsigned, may be headed to Tampa or Long Island for a tryout…Montreal Gazette columnist Red Fisher comparing new Canadiens coach and former Panther GM Jacques Martin to past coaches. “Martin, on the other hand, is inclined to keep everything inside. In other words, don’t expect emotional outbursts or even a flicker of fire from him. He could be breaking up inside, but you’d never know it.”