The Buffalo Sabres felt good about things when they packed their gear for the summer. The same cannot be said about their minor-leaguers.
The Rochester Americans said good riddance to another disappointing season Monday.
After going 3-11-1 in their final 15 games, the Amerks finished 34-38-4 to place 13th out of 15 teams in the Eastern Conference.
They missed the American Hockey League playoffs for the second straight year and haven’t won a postseason series since Ryan Miller, Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville led the team during the 2004-05 NHL lockout.
Condemning comments on locker cleanout day illustrated why Rochester was 15 points out of a playoff spot.
“On paper, I think we had one of the best teams in the league, but unfortunately we didn’t pull through in the right times,” center Tim Schaller told the Rochester media. “I just don’t think guys were consistent enough. I think some guys thought it was OK to take some nights off.”
The key members of the Amerks painted a portrait of a soft, inconsistent, defensively flawed team with a lot to learn.
“We had times where we were really good, and yet in the same breath, times where we were really bad,” coach Randy Cunneyworth said in Blue Cross Arena. “There was no rhyme or reason for it. On certain nights, we couldn’t score a goal. Some nights, we could defend.
“We had high expectations, and we just didn’t quite meet the goals. We wanted to be a fast team that had prolific scorers, and we forgot about the defending part of it.”
Rochester finished second last in its conference in goals (199) and goals allowed (249). It was 24-8-1 when scoring first but 10-30-3 when allowing the opening goal. The Amerks were outscored, 96-65, during third periods.
“There was no consistency across the board,” forward Matt Ellis said. “That’s where it’s frustrating because you show glimpses that you could be a very good team, then at the same time you come back the following weekend and you totally erase the work you did.
“That’s the frustrating part for us is that in flashes it was definitely there, but overall we weren’t committed enough to doing it over and over again.”
Cunneyworth said the Amerks also weren’t committed to playing a hard game.
“I don’t know if we enjoyed the physical play as much as we should have,” the coach said. “I think it was uncomfortable for some guys, and we’re going to have to grow in that department. This game is a physical game.
“They’ve got to have that compete level in them and passion. It’s got to come out each and every night. Sometimes it’s a little frightening for some to bring it out because they might have to answer the bell or respond or whatever. But I think if they’re able to watch the playoffs here at this time in the NHL and the American League, they’re going to learn a lot.”
Forwards Cole Schneider (21 goals, 56 points) and Eric O’Dell (25 goals, 48 points), acquired in a February trade with Ottawa, finished as the Amerks’ leading scorers.
Among players in Rochester all year, Williamsville native Justin Bailey paced the team with 20 goals and 45 points in 70 games. The first-year pro was voted the team’s Rookie of the Year and won the sportsmanship award.
Forward William Carrier, acquired in the trade that sent Miller to St. Louis in 2014, led the team with a plus-14 rating while recording 13 goals and 30 points in 56 games.
“We did have our moments, but it certainly wasn’t a fun year overall,” Cunneyworth said. “You want things right away, but the reality is it may take a few years for some of the guys to figure things out and to really go up to Buffalo or another team and make an impact. It really does take time.”
Patrick Kaleta’s year in Rochester didn’t go well. He says the struggles have made him want to get back to the NHL that much more.
Kaleta, signed to a minor-league contract after failing to make the Sabres out of training camp, played just 26 games for the Amerks because of injuries and an overflow of veterans. He recorded one goal, two assists, 16 shots and 33 penalty minutes.
“When I was in there, I did what I needed to do,” Kaleta said. “It’s just going to be focusing on getting back to the NHL. I’m pretty hungry. I have a chip on my shoulder, and I really think I can help out hopefully with the Sabres the younger group of guys with creating some space and knowing they have a little bit of backup.
“I’m overly hungry, and people have no idea how bad I want to get back to where I want to be.”
Kaleta, who played parts of nine seasons with the Sabres, will turn 30 in June. Neither his age nor the toll his body has taken is making him look toward retirement.
“I want to play for the Sabres, and I want to be in the Sabres’ organization,” Kaleta said. “Whether that happens or not, like I said, I’m just going to control what I can.
“I know that I can go in and have a big summer. Even watching playoff hockey, it’s pretty physical and it’s exciting. I caught a game the other day, and the adrenaline started coursing through my blood, so I’m not ready to call it quits yet.”
The Amerks have several other players set to be unrestricted free agents, including defenseman Chad Ruhwedel and forwards Schaller, Schneider, O’Dell, Ellis and Jerry D’Amigo. The list of restricted free agents includes forward Dan Catenacci and goaltenders Nathan Lieuwen and Andrey Markov.
“I’d love to return,” Ellis said. “I feel like I have a lot to offer in terms of leadership, professionalism for the young guys, and I think I can still play the game.”