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With family atmosphere, Amerks live up to preseason promise

SYRACUSE – The Buffalo Sabres know people are tired of empty promises. Owner Terry Pegula acknowledged it in his letter to season-ticket holders. General Manager Jason Botterill said it after the season.

The Rochester Americans backed up their vow. The organization said it would field a playoff team, and it did.

How did they put actions to their words?

"It was hard at the start," Amerks coach Chris Taylor said, "but we got guys to really understand and respect each other and understand what we're trying to do here. Everybody bought in. It comes from our staff. It comes from the leadership group. It came from everybody in the organization. It just trickled down here, and we started that.

"The biggest thing for me is wanting to come to the rink and be a family. We've created that culture here."

While the Sabres never became a cohesive unit, the Amerks jelled despite a steady stream of recalls and injuries. Taylor is getting a lot of the credit.

"For a guy in his first year as a head coach in the American League, I thought he's hit all the right buttons," Amerks GM Randy Sexton said. "He hasn't lost focus on development. He strikes the fine line between development and success on the ice. He's demanding and holds everybody accountable on and off the ice.

"He's just done a phenomenal job."

Already a member of the Amerks Hall of Fame, Taylor knew what a winner would mean to Rochester. The 46-year-old returned after one season with Botterill and Sexton in the Pittsburgh Penguins' organization and set about doing it.

There was no honeymoon, however. Winning was the only option.

"There's always pressure, and that's what it's all about," Taylor said in Oncenter War Memorial Arena. "At the start it was hard because there's always some resistance here and there with people coming from different places. I think our leadership group did a great job in the dressing room to start off the year. Randy brought in some great people to do that, and it rubs off on everybody."

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It helped that Taylor already had a connection with some players. He was a Rochester assistant from 2011 to 2016, and prospects such as Justin Bailey, Nick Baptiste and Linus Ullmark arrived during that time.

"I always had a really good relationship with Tayls, even from my first year here," Bailey said. "This season, he really harped on having a family atmosphere. That was shown early on in the season, and it's helped us grow to where we are today. It's what's made us so successful this season."

Like Sabres coach Phil Housley, Taylor had a long playing career. Drafted by the New York Islanders in the second round in 1990, Taylor turned pro in 1992 and didn't hang up his skates until 2011. He played 617 games in the AHL, 371 in the International Hockey League, 160 in Germany and 149 in the NHL, including parts of four seasons with the Sabres.

When Taylor was sent down to Rochester during the 2003-04 season after spending four months with the Sabres, first-year Buffalo forward and future co-captain Chris Drury pulled a reporter aside and wanted it known how much Taylor taught the young squad. Those traits clearly still exist.

"He's really a player's coach," Amerks defenseman Brendan Guhle said. "He is. He treats you well, and if you ever need to talk to him about something, it's an open door. He has fun with the guys. He jokes around with us. It's great to see him at the rink every day."

The group is getting extended time together because it fulfilled its preseason promise.

"The biggest thing for me is our players have done a great job," Taylor said. "It's all done by them on the ice. We can give them structure. We can give them this, we can give them that, but ultimately they have to go out and do it. They've done a great job all year."

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