While running Rochester’s practices, Dan Lambert is impressed by the Amerks’ competitiveness. Then the games come.
“We practice harder than we play some nights, it seems,” the coach said Tuesday. “I think that’s youth. They’re comfortable with each other. They can go hard against each other. The opposition, well, sometimes they’re a little older, a little meaner.”
The inexperience and trouble handling tenacity have helped contribute to the Amerks’ last-place standing. They are 20-29-2 heading into Wednesday’s “home” game against Utica in KeyBank Center.
“If anybody were to say we’re happy with the record that we have, that would be not accurate,” Lambert said by phone. “In saying that, we’re here for a few different reasons. One of them is to develop players. I like to think when our players have gone up to Buffalo they have contributed at different times and with different players.
“I would like to also be able to teach these young men how to win. You learn to have success, then they learn to be part of a winning culture. Unfortunately, we haven’t taken that step yet, but I do believe it will happen.”
Youth and a rash of recalls have affected the Amerks. The inexperience is evident in the numbers.
Alex Nylander, the No. 8 pick in last year’s NHL Draft, has six goals and 15 assists in 46 games. The winger has taken 77 shots and is minus-14.
The organization hoped Nylander would get a bump from participating in the world juniors, where he impressed with five goals and 12 points in seven games with Sweden. Instead, his only goal in the 17 games came Sunday, and it’s been accompanied by just three assists.
“He hit a bit of a lull,” Lambert said. “That world junior tournament takes a lot out of any player, and he basically started playing right away right after. I think fatigue might have been involved.
“And the fact that he is playing against men and this isn’t an easy league. He’s 18 years old. The last couple games he’s found the score sheet again, which is what he needs to do because he is an offensive guy. It’s one of those things where we have to be patient with him.”
Right wing Hudson Fasching started the season with the Sabres, who sent him to the Amerks in mid-October. He played just two games before suffering a severe groin injury that kept him out for nearly three months.
He sat out Sunday’s game because of lingering effects of the injury. He has no points in his last eight games and three goals and one assist in 17 games overall.
“There is still some discomfort with his injury, but I think he is learning to become a pro,” Lambert said. “Consistency is something. For example, when he was in Buffalo at the start of the year and they sent him down for two games, he was outstanding. He was really, really good in those two games. He played his game. He was physical in the sense of a bull down low with the puck. He was protecting the puck. He was doing great on the penalty kill, where he was blocking shots. He was paying the price. He was really good on the wall, which is where he needs to be.
“Then he got hurt, and A) he’s never been hurt, and then B) it was an area that his skating took a bit of a tumble. He’s slowing starting to find his game again and his feet again. … When you’re dealing with a young man that’s never been hurt before, he’s worried about it because it did affect his game.”
Several contributors to the Sabres are expected to be in the Amerks’ lineup, including Justin Bailey, Nick Baptiste, Evan Rodrigues, Cole Schneider, Taylor Fedun and Linus Ullmark. The game will also feature the return of center Tim Kennedy, the South Buffalo native who played for the Sabres from 2008 to 2010.
Ullmark leads the American Hockey League in games played (40) and minutes (2,343:20). He’s 19-19-2 with a .910 save percentage as the workhorse.
“That was the plan going into the season that he was going to see a lot of the games, and he certainly has done that,” Lambert said. “Most nights, he’s the guy that gives us a chance to win.”
Lambert wishes there were more wins. The Amerks are last in the North Division and 29th out of 30 teams. They have the league’s worst power play and have allowed the fourth-most goals.
“Losing is never fun,” said Lambert, who is in his first season with the Amerks after serving as an assistant with the Sabres last year. “A lot of it was what I expected. Some of it I probably wasn’t ready for.
“Maybe it’s because of how many call-ups we’ve had and the changing in lineups. I knew there would be some. I had no idea it would literally be different every night. That’s made it more of a challenge, and it’s made it interesting at certain times.”