ROCHESTER – When Chris Taylor was hired as coach of the Rochester Americans in June 2017, he was tasked with developing a roster dotted with former high draft picks, including Alexander Nylander.
The Amerks had missed the playoffs for three consecutive seasons and finished with 32 wins in 2016-17. That drought ended in Taylor's first season with 91 regular-season points, and Rochester entered Friday's games first in the AHL's North Division with 38 points.
The Buffalo Sabres' success has added to the excitement around Blue Cross Arena. Though the Amerks' singular focus is on their own play, they have enjoyed following the success of friends and former teammates. That resurgence has also motivated Taylor's players.
The Buffalo News spoke one-on-one with Taylor about his plan in Rochester, the Sabres' success and how some of the Amerks' players are developing this season.
Q: Is there anything you wanted to change about the team either on or off the ice in your second season here?
A: We tweaked a couple things here with practice and a few different things. Days off, when we should give them time to rest, our workout sessions. We changed a lot of different things like how we do video. All that kind of stuff. You're always trying to tweak things to get a little bit better. You're always learning and trying to do different things, how to adjust. I'm still learning every day. There's always a learning curve on my part, and there's a learning curve on these guys' part.
Q: Has it helped having a system already in place, even though you do have some new players like Victor Olofsson and Rasmus Asplund?
A: Definitely. It helps a lot. When you bring back some key members of your team, that really helps me and our staff get our systems and what we want and how we want the culture around here. When you keep having major turnover and change, it's tough to create that good culture that we want to keep having. With our key veterans and a lot of second-, third-year guys that are back, we're creating the culture we want and sustaining it to make our organization a good one.
Q: Does it help with player development when the Sabres have not needed to call up many players at this point in the season?
A: Yeah, you're consistently doing the same thing and consistently it's the same message every day. That's what we want. It takes time. You can't just tell someone, 'This is what we want," and it's going to happen. It's talking to them consistently, showing them what we want and delivering that same message.
When they're here for a while, they can grasp that message a lot better and keep learning from it. That's what they're doing. They're willing to put that hard work in and that's half the battle right there. We have good people in the locker room.
Q: Have you noticed the Sabres' success have an effect on this group?
A: Absolutely. It's huge. It's an organizational thing. That makes us want to play that much better because it's going to be hard to get up there. For us, it's great to see that some of our players from last year made the jump and they're part of that winning culture right now up there. It's great for the organization. That's what we want.
We want everybody to win, learn and get better. It was good for us last year and we're continuing this year. It's moved up to Buffalo this year. It's a great feeling and it's great to see. Phil [Housley] works hard at what he does and he does a great job. There's nothing better than to see him and the team get rewarded with some wins.
Q: Was the dynamic here different when the Sabres were struggling?
A: It's difficult because you know how much time and work they put into training camp and they don't get the results they want. It's tough. It's hard. You always want the best for everybody. It's no different for Buffalo. I love watching them on TV. It's exciting. They're playing great hockey and we want them to win. When our players go up there, we want them to get into that winning experience and be part of it.
Q: Have you learned anything about your team that you didn't know at the beginning of the season?
A: It's been nice to see how much they care for each other. It doesn't matter how much talent you have. It doesn't matter if we have the best forwards, D or goaltender in this league — if you don't like each other or get along you're not going to win a lot of hockey games.
I believe our group cares about each other. When you do, you're going to win a lot of hockey games for each other. That's what we're all about. We enjoy when someone gets called up and we're happy for that person because it's a team that helps you get called up. It's not just you as an individual.
Q: How do you help a young player get acclimated to the North American game, whether it's Lawrence Pilut, Olofsson or Asplund?
A: It's getting to know them outside the rink as well. You see what they need, help them and get to understand them as a person, first and foremost. If you don't understand them as a person, it's going to be tough to get them to do what you want them to do at the rink. Those guys have been great. They love the game. When you love the game, it's that much easier to coach them. They're so coachable. They want to stay on the ice for so long that you have to kick them off. They fit in perfect.
That's what I like about [assistant general manager Randy Sexton] and [Sabres general manager Jason Botterill]. They bring quality people into the dressing room. That's the number one thing.
Q: How has Olofsson adapted since his strong first month of the season?
A: He's getting more comfortable. He's learning the North American game and how quick he needs to play. He may have a little more time, that extra second, over there that he can make a play, but it's a little quicker here because the ice surface is smaller. He's understanding the North American game. It's a little bit more of a grind than wide open over there. He's doing a really good job with that.
Q: Have you noticed Alexander Nylander take another step forward in his development after another season in the AHL?
A: He's just turning 20. It's easy to forget that. He's learning every day. He's becoming a pro and he's understanding. You could tell in the summer that his body matured and how he was mentally he matured. He's getting better and better every day. It's nice to see. It's nice to see someone do the work and mature before our eyes.