ROCHESTER – In his first three pro seasons, Americans defenseman John Gilmour played for three awful Hartford Wolf Pack teams, never coming close to the playoffs.
In Gilmour’s rookie year, the New York Rangers’ affiliate finished last in the 31-team American Hockey League, winning just 24 games. Last season, the Wolf Pack won 29 games.
That’s why Gilmour, who cleared waivers Friday and was assigned to the Amerks, is so excited about his new opportunity. Having started the season 12-3-1-2, the Amerks rank second in the North Division. They’ve won five consecutive games heading into Friday's home game against the Toronto Marlies.
For the first time in his AHL career, Gilmour is playing for a winner.
“No offense to my teams in the past, but we were at the bottom of the standings,” an upbeat Gilmour, 26, said following Monday’s practice in Blue Cross Arena. “It’s nice to be on one that’s toward the top and with such a good group of guys in there, a great leadership group. I think it’s going to be a fun team to play on.”
Gilmour, of course, likely will earn loads of ice time in Rochester. He enjoyed a successful AHL season in 2018-19, scoring 20 goals and 54 points in 70 games, and is coming off seven weeks with the Sabres despite only playing in four of the first 22 games.
“He jumps in the play,” said coach Chris Taylor, who rejoined the Amerks on Monday after filling in for Sabres assistant Don Granato since the beginning of the season. “He’s a guy, his hockey smarts are really good, but his speed, he can recover well. He joins a play offensively, he can get back defensively. He’s a player that we trusted in Buffalo.”
Taylor said he expects Gilmour to be brimming with confidence.
“He made the team out of training camp, and that’s hard to do,” he said. “Anything you do, you make an NHL team out of training camp, you’ve done something really good, and he did.
“He made everybody take notice of him. I thought he was great.”
But Zach Bogosian’s return from offseason hip surgery gave the Sabres nine healthy defensemen. Gilmour knew something could happen – “You’re always looking at the numbers,” he said – but tried to keep it in the back of his head.
On Thursday, Gilmour was waived for the first time in his career. Instead of worrying about being claimed, he said he tried to focus on joining the Amerks.
“Honestly, I was just more worried about my travel day, leaving from Florida, making my way to Binghamton, it was a long travel day,” he said. “I was just focusing on that and then wrapping my head around playing the next night.”
Gilmour played in Saturday’s 4-2 road win over the Binghamton Devils, recording an assist on forward Eric Cornel’s game-winning goal.
His presence gives the Amerks incredible depth.
In Gilmour, Lawrence Pilut and Zach Redmond, they possess three of the AHL’s most talented offensive defensemen. Right now, they have 10 blue liners on the roster.
“It’s a good problem to have,” Taylor said. “It makes our internal competition that much better, pushes guys.”
The Amerks hope Gilmour will make their power play much better. For a high-scoring team loaded with talent, they’ve been dismal on the man advantage, converting only 12.5% of their chances.
“We didn’t expect that we would struggle on the power play, and we have,” Amerks General Manager Randy Sexton said.
Sexton said the Amerks “expect that John can bring the mobile, transitional, puck-moving style of play that we want organizationally.”
“We also think he’s capable of scoring goals,” he said. “He’s got a great shot from the point, he’s got great vision. So we’re hopeful that he might be one of the sparks to ignite our power play.”
Sexton said Taylor, who spent the first 22 games with the Sabres, “absolutely” has the qualities to be an NHL head coach someday.
“He showed firsthand that he can handle the role of an assistant coach in the National Hockey League,” he said. “I really believe he’s got what it takes, with some more experience and some more work, to be a very successful NHL head coach.”
The Sabres promoted Taylor on an interim basis Oct. 1 after Granato was hospitalized with severe pneumonia.
During his time in Buffalo, Taylor said he would watch Amerks games and communicate with interim coach Gord Dineen every day.
Dineen was back running the defense Monday as an assistant.
“He handled it with dignity and grace,” Sexton said of Dineen’s job filling in for Taylor.
Sexton said Adam Mair, who took over Dineen’s assistant duties, will return to his regular role as a player development coach.
“It certainly was as seamless as we ever could have hoped for on all fronts,” Sexton said.
Sexton also credits the Amerks’ leadership group for the team’s success without Taylor.
“They did a phenomenal job making sure that there were no excuses, that there was entire focus on the task at hand," Sexton said. "When you look at the number of recalls we’ve had, the injuries we’ve had, we haven’t missed a beat."
Randell, Smith get their chances
Injuries up front – the Amerks have only 11 healthy forwards – have pressed tough guys Tyler Randell and Dalton Smith into regular duty.
Randell, 28, has scored in consecutive games and three of his last five appearances. Through seven outings, he has already equaled his goal total output from last season in 29 fewer games.
In Friday’s 4-0 win against Hartford, Randell was one of the best players on the ice. After getting stopped on a nifty scoring chance he generated, he one-timed a bounce off the end boards in from the right circle.
“The ones that you don’t expect to go in sometimes end up going in,” Randell said.
The 6-foot-1, 198-pound Randell possesses some notable talent. He scored six goals during a 27-game run with the Boston Bruins in 2015-16.
“I’ve been tagged as a tough guy, and obviously the game’s changed over the years and I’ve had to adjust,” he said. “Every summer I’m working on the skills. ... If I can play and produce at the same time, it’s a big asset.”
When Randell scored Friday, the entire Amerks bench erupted.
“The whole group was really happy for him after the game,” Dineen said. “He’s got a lot of skill. He’s shown that at different times. It’s tough sometimes when you don’t get a lot of rhythm out there in the game and ice time.
“With our lineup being the way it is, he’s making a strong statement for himself that he wants to stay in the lineup.”
Amerks goalie Andrew Hammond said: “He’s got some ability that will definitely surprise people.”
Sexton said the Amerks want to be patient and stick with the players they have.
“Those guys have worked very hard to get an opportunity,” he said. “You look at the way that Tyler Randell is scoring and you look at the way Dalton Smith has played, you looked at the way Eric Cornel has stepped up, those guys have earned that opportunity. I don’t think you can build loyalty and commitment and ask the players to do what we ask them to do on a daily basis if as soon as there’s a little bit of adversity we want to run outside the organization and bring someone new in.”