ROCHESTER – When the Sabres brought back veteran Kevin Porter to the organization in 2017, it sent a strong message the team’s new regime would be making the Americans a priority again.
Porter, 32, captained the American Hockey League affiliate during his previous stint with the Sabres and also played 45 NHL games.
During Porter’s three seasons away, he won the Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 2016, earning some regular duty. The center also played under Sabres general manager Jason Botterill, who ran Pittsburgh’s AHL affiliate, and Amerks coach Chris Taylor, an assistant with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
The Amerks, meanwhile, never sniffed the postseason.
“We brought him here for a reason, to change the culture,” Taylor said before Friday’s 5-1 loss to the Toronto Marlies in Blue Cross Arena.
Porter, a veteran of 447 AHL games, has relished the challenge of helping the Amerks establish a winner.
“It’s nice to be that guy that people say, ‘Wow, this program really turned around and you’re a part of that,’” said Porter, who returned Friday from a lower-body injury that sidelined him 13 games.
A season and half later, the Amerks rank among the AHL’s heavyweights. They made the playoffs last year and rank first in the North Division this season with 46 points through 37 games.
“Things aren’t going to change in a year, even two years,” Porter said. “It’s going to take a little bit of time. But I think they’ve done a great job of turning it around. … Slowly but surely things are getting better.”
While the Amerks went 7-6-0 without Porter, they missed him. The 2008 Hobey Baker Award winner at Michigan has kept producing offense – he has five goals and 14 points in 24 games this season – into his 30s.
But 11 seasons into his career, Porter’s leadership skills – “He’s our voice,” Amerks defenseman Zach Redmond said – might be his best assets.
“He’s someone that everyone looks up to, just on and off the ice,” Redmond said. “He’s a good leader. He’s kind of the guy that arranges everything. Everything goes through him from the coaches to the team. So not only are we missing a good player, but we’re missing our leader.”
Taylor said the Amerks missed Porter’s calmness between periods.
“He’s the guy that everyone respects and listens to,” Taylor said.
Porter hadn’t played since leveling a Providence Bruins player Dec. 5. While his opponent endured the brunt of the hit, Porter was injured.
“Something just didn’t feel right,” Porter said.
Taylor leaned on Porter heavily again Friday, utilizing him on a top line between Wayne Simpson and Scott Wilson.
“He’s not going to burn down the side and beat you, but he’s super smart,” said Wilson, who played with Porter in the Pittsburgh organization. “He’s always in the right spot and has really good hands in tight. He’s a guy, whether it’s on the power play or five-on-five, he’s going to be able to make that little pass to you in the middle.”
Taylor said Porter “makes the smart play.”
“We miss his creativity,” Taylor said. “Just five-on-five, he adds more depth and balance to our team, gives us four really strong lines right now that teams are going to have a hard time matching lines against us.”
Chris Ciamaga, a Buffalo State College and St. Francis High School graduate, refereed his final AHL game Friday after 15 seasons.
The league honored him on the Blue Cross Arena ice before the game. Following the contest, some players sought him out. West Seneca’s Chris Mueller, a center with the Marlies, posed for a photo with Ciamaga.
Ciamaga is HarborCenter’s assistant director of hockey.
During an interview shown on the scoreboard during a break in the action Friday, Amerks defenseman Brandon Hickey, who attended Boston University, said he was a New England Patriots fans. The crowd responded by booing.