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Sabres' prospects preparing in case Amerks' season resumes

Chris Taylor is spending most of his days preparing for a postseason that might never occur. The Rochester Americans' coach has examined analytics and rewatched game video to find ways in which his players can improve their odds when, or if, their season resumes.

All the data and ancedotal evidence gathered supports what Taylor thought about the Amerks when the American Hockey League suspended its season March 12.

"We were trending in the right direction," Taylor said during a phone interview Friday. Buffalo Sabres management was expecting a long playoff run after first-round sweeps the last two seasons.

General Manager Jason Botterill and his staff view the Amerks as a pillar in the franchise's plan to build a playoff contender in Buffalo. Rochester's roster was strengthened by the assignments of Rasmus Asplund and former seventh overall draft pick Casey Mittelstadt. Both would benefit from experiencing the intensity of playoff games.

Both players and their teammates face the possibility they might not play in a game until October.

"That’s the hardest part," Taylor said. "All these guys that were just getting ready to push for the playoffs. That hurts. We had something going. We wanted them to experience the playoffs and how to get ready for playoffs, winning and playing those big games we wanted them to play. That’s why we’d love to get back to playing.

"Those guys understand if we don’t come back that they have to be ready and prepared. They took a lot out of this year. ... We want to continue that, to keep growing. We were going into really meaningful games and that’s the best player development."

The Amerks were second in the North Division with 14 games remaining, despite losing key players to injury and recalls throughout the season. Before the league suspended play, Rochester had won two of its final three games and began to show Taylor it was capable of thriving in important moments.

Goalie Jonas Johansson recently returned from a stint with the Sabres and Mittelstadt had seven points over his final nine games. Rookies Brett Murray and Jacob Bryson were thriving in their respective roles – the latter had six points, including two goals, in his last four games – while experienced players were showing coaches they were ready for the postseason. Taylor also mentioned Andrew Oglevie, C.J. Smith and Will Borgen among those who were flourishing with greater responsibilities.

Additionally, the Amerks' strong defensive play was beginning to lead to consistent scoring chances after a 13-game stretch in which the team went 4-6-3. All were important signs of growth from Rochester, which lost Victor Olofsson and Danny O'Regan from a 46-win season in 2019-20.

"I think we were understanding our structure a lot better – understanding each individual because we did have a lot of guys coming into the lineup with recalls and injuries," Taylor said. "I found we were starting to become more of a team and we started to understand the identity of our team. When we needed Casey Mittelstadt to block a shot he was blocking a shot. When we needed Jacob Bryson to come up with a big goal he’d come up with a big goal for us. Asplund was taking big faceoffs. They were understanding the needs, wants and expectations for our team. That’s why we were trending the right way."

The Amerks, like most hockey players around the globe, cannot skate because rinks are closed in accordance with social distancing mandates. Most workouts are completed in their homes or outdoors. Some are using the additional time off to recover from injury.

Taylor has called every player on the roster to check on their health and safety. He's opted to withhold his analysis until the season resumes or he's forced to have some version of exit interviews.

"We stay connected," he said. "The biggest thing is open communication, seeing how they’re feeling. A lot of guys are nervous or scared, the uncertainty of it. You want to make sure you’re talking to them, understanding how they’re feeling and give them the information that we have."

Taylor's staff is sharing video from their respective locations and discussing their findings over the phone. Each is participating in the NHL Coaches' Associations' Mentorship Program, which features webinars on career advancement, communication and leadership.

Taylor has also exchanged text messages with Sabres coach Ralph Krueger and the two plan to speak in greater detail next week. Neither can definitively say when his respective team is going to return to the ice, forcing both coaches to prepare for the possibility their season is over.

Their situations are far different, though. Krueger was looking for the Sabres to confirm their identity and finish strong over the final 13 games.

Rochester was scheduled to host Syracuse on Friday night, the first of five games before the postseason. The Amerks have not won a playoff series since 2004-05 and were swept in the first round in each of the past two seasons. However, the experience last April helped Olofsson prepare for a full-time NHL role. The 24-year-old has 20 goals with 22 assists during his first full season with the Sabres.

The organization was hoping this postseason could have a similar impact on Mittelstadt, who had nine goals with 16 assists in 36 games after joining the Amerks in December.

"Things didn’t come easy for him and I felt as he played more games he became a bigger part of our team in every aspect: power play, penalty kill, 5 on 5, 4 on 4," Taylor said of Mittelstadt. "He wanted to be out there. He was becoming a leader."

It's likely the Amerks' practices now would have included prospects Dylan Cozens and Matej Pekar, both of whom had their junior hockey seasons canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Neither would play in games, but practices during the playoffs proved to be valuable for Bryson last April. A number of important development opportunities might be lost.

While Taylor won't have a say in a possible return to play, he envisions a scenario in which the league cancels the remainder of the regular season and resumes with the playoffs.

"If we do get to come back and play – that’s up to the league and for those guys to understand what is beneficial for everybody – but I could see going right into the playoffs at this point," he said. "It would be very hard to play the last so many (regular-season) games and then go into the playoffs. Again, that’s not for me to decide. We just want to play. That’s the biggest thing."

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