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'COACH' TAYLOR BRINGS THE BEST OUT OF AMERKS

Randy Cunneyworth never thought much about it until the other day, when the Rochester Americans coach stepped back for a moment and took a closer look at his captain. He realized there are a number of similarities between himself and Chris Taylor.

Cunneyworth, if you remember, wasn't blessed with an overabundance of natural talent, but good luck finding anybody who outworked him. He was a tireless, unselfish player and consummate professional. He spent his final seasons passing along his wisdom and experience to younger players in Buffalo and Rochester.

You knew he would be a good coach.

Taylor will be behind the bench someday, too. He's already been bitten by the coaching bug. He's had former first-round pick Thomas Vanek on -- and under -- his wing all season and helped guide the rookie phenom to 42 goals. Paul Gaustad and Derek Roy are his latest pet projects, just in time for Rochester's AHL playoff series against Hamilton that continues tonight.

"I'm concentrating on Paul and Derek right now, trying to improve their games," Taylor said Wednesday after the Amerks' 3-1 victory in Game One. "They're playing tremendous hockey. They're like sponges. They want all that extra stuff, and I love giving it to them. It will make me feel better if I see them up in Buffalo next year."

We hear so much about Vanek and goalie Ryan Miller, and the attention is warranted. They will lead the Sabres into the next generation if the NHL ever gets its act together.

Taylor, a steady two-way player, will likely be left behind. There was a sense he was content with that Wednesday because he's reached a different point in his career. He still loves playing the game but gets his jollies out of watching his young teammates develop into NHL-caliber players, knowing he contributed to their success.

"You can't describe the feeling," he said.

Taylor, 33, always had marginal NHL skills but a Hall of Fame head. He became the first Rochester player named the team's MVP three times, an achievement that speaks of his productivity yet confirms his time in the minors. Do you offer congratulations or condolences? He led the Amerks in scoring with 21 goals and 79 points this season, but that was only part of the equation.

The Amerks had the best record in the AHL this season largely because they had a respected, mature voice in the dressing room and an intelligent player on the ice. Taylor set the tone. He showed his younger, faster teammates that getting to the right spots often comes from having hockey sense, not blazing speed. He insisted they learn the mental side of the game.

"I think he would be a great coach," Roy said. "He pulls us aside after practice and games, and tells us what he wants and what's expected, but he does it in a calm way. Great leadership like that develops into great coaching. He's the guy on our team. He's the leader. When he plays well, everybody else responds."

It must be comforting for Cunneyworth knowing he has an extension of himself on the ice in Taylor, a stable bridge that connects the younger players and where they're trying to go. Taylor played 149 games in the NHL, another 804 in the minors.

Now he's passing along everything he knows, the way Cunneyworth once did before he became a coach. It will help the Amerks now, the Sabres later.

"Tayls gives himself unselfishly and makes sure that he's there for everybody," Cunneyworth said. "He's a great leader. His play shows that. His time off the ice exemplifies that. You can't ask for anything more. He's basically a player-coach without the title."

Isn't that how people described Cunneyworth?
e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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