Justin Falk smiles when remember that season. It was two years ago when he was with the Lake Erie Monsters, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Columbus Blue Jackets. While Falk split his season between the clubs, he was part of the Cleveland-based team's run to win the Calder Cup in 2016.
That run to a championship has made all the difference. For the Blue Jackets. Because playing in the postseason has its advantages, particularly when trying to build a winning culture throughout an organization.
"Any chance you get to play in a playoff-type atmosphere, those games are different," said Falk, now in his second season with the Buffalo Sabres. "Whatever level, you can take something from that. And if you look at their lineup across the board, they have guys that were on that team as well. They're progressing well in their careers and gained a lot of experience and confidence in that aspect. It was a great year there. I had a lot of fun with those guys and good memories."
The Blue Jackets roster, which came to Buffalo for Monday's game with the Sabres, featured six players who were part of that 2016 Calder Cup champion team with Lake Erie.
Defenseman Zach Werenski was fresh off his collegiate career at Michigan when he joined the Monsters for the run. Werenski has six goals, including the game-winner in the last two games for the Blue Jackets. Also part of that team were forwards Sonny Milano (five goals, three assists through 17 games with Columbus), Oliver Bjorkstrand (five goals, seven assists in 20 games), Markus Hannikainen (two goals, two assists in 11 games) and Josh Anderson (seven goals, three assists in 18 games.) Also part of that roster is Columbus back-up goalie Joonas Korpisalo.
It's no surprise, then, that Columbus is having success with the help of players developed in the American Hockey League. It's part of building an organizational culture, one where work ethic and attention to detail lead to winning. It's something Falk has noticed throughout his career, which includes 270 AHL games with the Houston Aeros, Iowa Wild, Lake Erie Monsters, and Rochester Americans.
"We talk about wanting to build a culture and when you look at good teams it's not wanting to play a certain way, it's not trying to run a system," Falk said. "Everything is natural in what they do and how they show up and work. They're not trying to do that, it's just who they are and that's something guys need to learn and understand.
"The one thing I've noticed, maybe just because of me personally … is you can't change who you are. I've done a lot of bouncing around and I've seen guys prepare really well in Rochester and expect things to go well and expect to get called up and as soon as they get here expect things to just keep going smoothly. I've also seen guys just not put in the time in Rochester or wherever in the minors and expect a call-up and soon as they actually do get called up then all of a sudden they're preparing. You've got to be really focused and dedicated, committed to the process of being a good pro on and off the ice and all that so when opportunity does present itself, you take advantage of it."
While there are always individual opportunities throughout the course of a season (see Buffalo's 105 games lost to injury through the first 20 games for example), the development in the AHL contributes to a longer-term cultural shift. While there are adjustments to make from the AHL to the NHL, learning to win is learning to win.
And the good news for Sabres fans is that the Amerks are learning to win.
Monday morning, Rochester was in fourth place in the Eastern Conference with a 9-5-1-1 record.
"Everybody's buying in," Amerks coach Chris Taylor said last week in Blue Cross Arena. "We didn't think we'd be using our depth as much as we are, especially on defense, but we have been and everybody's been buying in. That's what we tried to bring in – good people wiling to work hard every day and care about each other. That's what we're doing. And the guys are caring. I think that's why we're having a little bit more success."