Longtime Buffalo Sabres beat writer Bill Hoppe of BuffaloHockeyBeat.com, will be writing about Sabres prospects, the Rochester Americans and related topics this season.
On a team featuring some of the American Hockey League’s leading scorers, high-priced veterans and a slew of talented youngsters, winger Wayne Simpson has quietly carved out an important role for the Rochester Americans.
Of course, it can be easy to overlook Simpson. The undrafted Union College product isn’t a prospect. He has no NHL experience and is playing on an AHL contract.
But Simpson, 29, has become one of the Amerks’ most reliable and versatile presences, earning ice time in all situations and scoring six goals during their fast 12-5-2 start.
“The expectation is I can create offense and lead by example a little bit,” Simpson said.
The 5-foot-11, 194-pound Simpson stands out on perhaps the AHL’s deepest team. He usually plays beside center Kevin Porter and a Sabres prospect – early on it was Alexander Nylander – on a scoring line. Simpson also skates on the top power-play unit and kills penalties.
“He goes into the hard areas and … he breaks up a lot of plays, he’s good defensively, he sneaks up on guys and steals pucks away from that,” coach Chris Taylor said. “He’s always around the puck and the puck always follows him. That just tells you he’s kind of a headsy player and he just quietly goes about his business.”
While Simpson plays aggressively, as Taylor said, he showcases his smarts. Simpson often avoids taking bad hits.
That has helped make Simpson so durable he has played 206 consecutive games, the AHL’s current longest active ironman streak.
“He doesn’t have to go into bad areas because he’s always in a really good spot,” Taylor said.
Simpson said he never figured he could have a pro hockey career until his junior season at Union, where he studied managerial economics.
“I was going to a good school, so it wasn’t always hockey is my plan A and no plan B,” said Simpson, who grew up in Boxborough, Mass. “But it just kind of worked out that way.”
As Simpson’s college career progressed, the Dutchmen rose to national prominence.
“We were kind of more in the national spotlight,” Simpson said. “We played in the Frozen Four one year, played in the tournament both years, won (the) ECAC championship both years. That exposure obviously helps. I was fortunate to be on a team with a lot of good players. Statistically, it helped a lot of players out.”
Simpson compiled 18 goals and 31 points in 41 games as a junior and 16 goals and 39 points in 41 contests as a senior.
Those strong seasons earned Simpson attention and an ECHL contract. In 2014-15, his second pro campaign, he enjoyed a monster postseason, scoring 13 goals and 38 points in 27 games as the South Carolina Stingrays roared to the Kelly Cup final.
Simpson parlayed that into an invitation to the AHL Portland Pirates’ training camp the next season.
“I ended up grabbing one of the spots,” Simpson said. “It was definitely a breaking point in my career.”
Simpson spent 2016-17 with the Providence Bruins and last season with the Hershey Bears on a two-way contract, averaging 15 goals and 46 points.
Still, Simpson endured what he called a “long offseason” as he considered his options, including playing in Europe. He finally signed with the Sabres’ affiliate on Aug. 15.
“They sold it as an opportunity to come in and play, first of all, with a team that’s looking to win at the American Hockey League level, as opposed to sometimes there’s other motivations,” Simpson said. “They thought a guy in my position, a little older, could come in, they weren’t going to penalize me because I wasn’t a prospect.”
“They’re trying to build a winning culture, and I thought it was perfect for someone in the position who was trying to get another break and looking for an NHL contract.”
Bailey on fire
Following a wretched start that included 11 goalless outings, Amerks winger Justin Bailey has caught fire, compiling five goals and eight points in his last seven games.
The Williamsville native has a three-game point streak entering Friday’s game against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins at Blue Cross Arena.
What has changed for the Sabres prospect?
“He’s doing things a little more simpler,” Taylor said. “He’s driving pucks wide, he’s using his speed as an asset. That’s a huge asset he has. He’s using that (6-foot-4, 214-pound) body.”
Taylor said defenseman Lawrence Pilut’s first trip to the Sabres should help him generate confidence.
The Sabres recalled the Swede, 22, last week but did not play him. They summoned him again for insurance Tuesday.
“Just being around there for a couple days, it energizes you,” Taylor said. “It’s the NHL, especially the way Buffalo’s playing (10 consecutive wins), it’s fun to be around and it’s a great atmosphere for a guy like that to see that.”
Pilut has three goals and 22 points in his first 16 games with the Amerks, putting him in a six-way tie for third in AHL scoring.
Taylor said Amerks center Kyle Criscuolo, out with a lower-body injury since Oct. 26, hasn’t started practicing yet. ... The Amerks have pocketed 26 of a possible 32 points in the last 16 games.