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Infusion of veterans have led Rochester Americans back to the playoffs

ROCHESTER – Nathan Paetsch was a 20-year-old rookie, getting his first taste of life as professional hockey player.

And what an entrance it was. In 2004, Paetsch was part of a Rochester Americans team that earned a first-round playoff bye, won two series, and advanced to the semifinals of the American Hockey League's Calder Cup playoffs.

The next season, the Amerks won their first-round series against the Hamilton Bulldogs before losing to the Maintoba Moose in the quarterfinals.

That was 13 years ago and it was the last time the Amerks made it out of the first round of the playoffs.

Hockey life has come full circle for Paetsch, now 35. Once the eager-to-learn rookie, he's the seasoned veteran, helping the Amerks return to the playoffs for the first time in four years.

Rochester has six regular-season games remaining, including Wednesday night at Laval, and will face either Toronto or Syracuse in the first round.

"There's a lot of similarities," Paetsch said of this Amerks team and the ones he played on in 2004 and 2005. "I was obviously extremely young. We're talking 14-15 years ago. ... I remember we had a really veteran group on D and really good goaltending and a lot of young, skilled forwards."

Where once he was the young defenseman under the tutelage of Jason Botterill (current Sabres general manager) and Chris Taylor (current Amerks head coach), Paetsch is now an elder statesman. The roles might have flipped, but the script remains the same.

"I learned everything in those years," Paetsch said after a recent practice in Blue Cross Arena. "That's when I learned how to be a pro, how I learned to take care of myself on and off the ice. (Taylor) was my captain then and I learned how to be a dad by watching him be a dad. Stuff like that takes you a long way. I was fortunate. Those were great years for me. We had great teams, but we also had great people. We had a really good group of older guys and they really led the younger guys along."

Veteran leadership

Talent alone doesn't allow a player to make it to the NHL. There are things that 19 and 20 year-old kids need to learn – like remembering to eat breakfast, and that practice has a purpose. Often it's the simplest things that make the difference both for an individual and a group.

"The guidance is how they act as professionals on and off the ice," Taylor said of the impact the veterans have had on the younger players.  "It's coming in and making sure you've eaten breakfast and prepare for practice. It's not just come here and I've got practice today. It's how you're going to get better each and every day and the veterans do a really good job with that. They're the hardest working guys in practice and that's what we want from our younger guys, to come in here and understand this is their job, this is what they've got to do, this is how they've got to prepare to be successful.

"I think our leadership has been great and I think our guys have really been encouraged and they're open to different ideas. They're sponges. They look up to these older guys and I think it's a great mix."

Those older players have made a difference in the development of a number of prospects on the Amerks, including forward Alexander Nylander.

In his last 19 games, Nylander has five goals and 11 assists. He  matched last season's total of 18 assists in 20 fewer games and was called up to the Sabres on Tuesday for the final three games of the NHL season.

It was a slow start for Nylander, who missed training camp with a lower-body injury and didn't return to practice until the beginning of November. But the 20-year-old is finding his stride.

"The veterans have been really good to us young guys," Nylander said. "They're taking care of us, helping us out, trying to make us feel as confident as possible and then, on the ice, just play our game. And they help us a lot just showing us how to be professional."

They might be helpful, but that doesn't mean the vets are coddling the younger players, especially one of Nylander's caliber. He was the eighth overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft.

"I think he's more responsive to a lot of the things we're talking to him about," Taylor said.  "He's watching a lot of video. He's doing a lot of things after practice. He's learning during games. Internally, there's pressure. Guys are helping him out but they're also being hard on him. We all are. That's making Alex better. That's making our team better. We need Alex. He's a big part of this organization and a big part of our team. He's dynamic. He's one of those guys that can put his team on his back for a big game and we need that from him."

Culture change

It helps that the veteran players who are creating a sense of accountability come from winning programs.

Paetsch has won two Calder Cups with the Grand Rapids Griffins. A number of players came to the Amerks from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, who had the best record in the regular season in 2016-17. That group was brought in by new Sabres hockey management to help change the culture in the organization, beginning with Rochester. As associate general manager for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Botterill was GM of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton team.

It's been a process, but it's already taken hold.

"Culture's not something you talk about, it's something you do," Paetsch said. "It's something you do every day. It's how you bring yourself to work every day. It's how you interact. It's how a group jells together. We've done a really good job with that here from the coaching staff to the leadership to the young guys; everyone has bought in. It's not just a team, it's a family mentality, and I think we have a really good group."

The group clinched a playoff spot on March 24, achieving their primary mission for the season. But since arriving at that waymark, the Amerks see the possibility of going even further.

"We talked about it during the summer, that our main goal was to get in the postseason, but once you start playing and you're involved and you're so excited, it's like no, we want more than that," Taylor said. "We don't just want to make the playoffs. That's not good enough for our team. It's not good enough for what we built during the year so we're looking that we can go far."

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