Tugs-of-war take their toll on Amerks

Article in The Buffalo News on Sunday talking about the Amerks/Sabres relationship that basically says the Sabres suck as an NHL affiliate team.

Tugs-of-war take their toll on Amerks

Team caught in middle of parent clubs, owners

Updated: 03/23/08 7:26 AM

His name was synonymous with the team he now oversees. It’s difficult for anyone who grasps the long, celebrated history of the Rochester Americans to go without thinking about Jody Gage. He’s their all-time leader in goals, assists and games played and, in recent years, tickets sold.

Gage made a connection with the Rochester fan base long before becoming general manager and vice president of sports operations, duties that extend beyond the Amerks and into the indoor lacrosse Knighthawks and outdoor lacrosse

“It’s probably tough for Cunney. He’s got two teams barking at him and telling him what to do, and it’s tough to satisfy both teams.” Rookie defenseman Mike Weber

Rattlers. His three teams have reached the championship round eight times in 11 years.

And now he’s weathering a perfect storm.

Yes, this has been a difficult year for the Amerks. Once a perennial powerhouse and a model franchise in the American Hockey League, they are dead last (20-39-10 with 50 points) going into the final three weeks of the season. Their relationships with the Sabres and their other affiliate, the Florida Panthers, have been strained while the losses have piled up.

“It’s not easy,” Gage said. “From a player’s standpoint, you want to see them win. I was a professional hockey player, and I hated losing no matter what. I would be lying to say that it doesn’t hurt. But there’s a point where there’s reality. You can’t be on top of the world all the time.”

The Amerks were 10-10-3 this season before a 5-1 loss to Providence on Dec. 1 sent them into a two-month tailspin. It was the first of 10 straight defeats. They snapped the streak, following one victory with six more losses.

They halted that skid with one win and lost nine straight. All told, they are 10-29-7 over the last 46 games.

Naturally, their struggles have been felt at the gate. Estimates had attendance figures down about 20 percent, but nights of 4,000 fans have become routine. The reasons were predictable. An unstable economy forced fans to think twice about buying tickets. An unstable team made them think thrice.

Rochester’s record suggests an AHL team in complete disarray, but that’s only partially accurate. A feud among the team’s three owners has contributed to financial problems and continuous speculation about a sale. The Sabres and Panthers, the only NHL teams that share an AHL affiliate, have made it clear the dual relationship no longer works.

The result has trickled down to the ice, where both NHL teams stocked the Rochester roster mostly with players who will be no better than third-or fourth-liners in the NHL. Winning becomes difficult because they lack the balanced cross section of players – scorers, defensive players, toughness, etc. – required for success.

“If you’re similar in a lot of aspects, it doesn’t allow you to tweak to make that winning team that can make a difference,” Gage said. “You have to have balance, and it’s harder to have balance in a dual [affiliation]. It’s been proven over time.”

Changing pool of players

Gage made it clear that the struggles have little to do with the players or the coaching staff, an argument that has merit. Prospects on both teams were trying to make the best of a trying situation that was created by several forces pulling from different directions. Basically, coach Randy Cunneyworth & Co. became victims of circumstance.

“Florida is having problems,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “They’re pulling players in and out. At the same time, we’re pulling players in and out. If it was just your own team, you would have some consistent players there, day in and day out, which we don’t have. It’s a tough situation. It’s a situation where I don’t envy Randy at all.”

The Sabres and Panthers have looked out mostly for the players they have under contract. Why would Buffalo’s management care about Florida’s prospects? Players were doing whatever was necessary for a shot at the NHL, and coaches were trying to develop them. Ownership was looking for ways to sell tickets to ease financial pressure that has nagged the organization for years.

“Our organization has great pride, tradition and history,” Gage said. “We’ve been pretty spoiled over the years. We’ve had some off years, but not too many. The one thing that I am proud of is the coaching staff and the players. They’ve showed up and worked hard. Cunney and [assistant coach Jason Cipolla] are the last guys on and off the ice. Their doors are always open. And the kids are working their butts off.”

And there are injuries. The Sabres have lost 174 man-games due to injury, a number that will continue to climb down the stretch with Tim Connolly done for the season and defensemen Jaroslav Spacek, Dmitri Kalinin and Nathan Paetsch nursing ailments. It’s nothing compared to the Panthers, who had lost 362 man-games going into this week and used 30 different skaters and two goalies this season.

Where do they reach first for help? Rochester. Goalie Adam Dennis and forwards Dylan Hunter, Marek Zagrapan and Mark Mancari are the only Buffalo prospects who have spent the entire season in Rochester. Clarke MacArthur entered Saturday ranked fifth on the team in scoring despite playing only 31 games. At times, the Amerks were left with skeletal remains of the team that started the season.

With three defensemen and Patrick Kaleta now in Buffalo, the Amerks have only five healthy skaters and a goalie who are Buffalo property. Defenseman Mike Card is out with a concussion.

“It’s probably tough for Cunney,” said rookie defenseman Mike Weber, who since was called up to Buffalo. “He’s got two teams barking at him and telling him what to do, and it’s tough to satisfy both teams. There are some points in the season where it’s all on us. We haven’t played that well. Right now, it’s kind of a grind. Guys mentally are just worn down and want the season to end. It’s sad to see.”

Lack of veteran presence

Buffalo had a different approach before partnering with Florida to save money on player costs after the 2004-05 season, which ended with Rochester posting the best record in the AHL during the NHL lockout. For example, the Sabres usually made sure they had a veteran player nearing the end of his career in Rochester with the idea they had someone in the dressing room to nurture young players.

Cunneyworth, who played 866 NHL games and was a part-timer on the 1998-99 Buffalo team that reached the Stanley Cup finals, had that role for several years. He was known for his knowledge, work ethic and professionalism, three major reasons the Sabres hired him to coach the Amerks.

Cunneyworth guided the Amerks to two division titles and second place or better five times in his first seven years. Doug Houda took over his role as a player and is now an assistant coach in Boston. Chris Taylor had a similar arrangement. And, lest anyone forget, Gage was the guy for the final stage of his career.

All helped young players mature into solid pros.

“The time in Rochester taught me how to be an NHL player, on and off the ice,” center Paul Gaustad said. “You learn how to take care of yourself. You just mature as a person. We had a lot of great veterans in the locker room, and it helped me along the way. It was a great experience. It’s why I’m here today.”

Eleven regulars playing in Buffalo spent significant time developing their skills under Cunneyworth. Among them are Gaustad, goaltender Ryan Miller and the Sabres’ top three scorers – Jason Pominville, Derek Roy and Thomas Vanek. Another was since-departed Brian Campbell, now considered among the NHL’s better defensemen.

The setup allowed the Sabres to control ice time of their own players and place them in situations that helped them when they reached the NHL. It also freed up more spots for college players – and kept them under tight watch – rather than place them under college coaches who had entirely different agendas.

“There are a lot of guys in our locker room who are going to play in the National Hockey League,” Gage said. “If you’re a little part in helping that player, there’s still success in that. I know it drives Cunney, and I know it drives me. It might be a little part but, still, it’s a part. You end up being very proud when they move on to that phase.”

Potential stars in waiting

A different arrangement could have alleviated some problems. South Buffalo native Tim Kennedy

was prepared to leave Michigan State after leading the Spartans to the NCAA championship and start his professional career in Rochester. But because the Sabres had all their AHL spots used up by other players, he was sent back to college for another year.

It might have saved money in the short term because they weren’t forced to pay Kennedy’s salary in Rochester. It could cost them more in the long run because Kennedy’s stock soared. He’s expected to make much more money when he signs a three-year rookie contract than he would have if he came out a year earlier.

Many believe Kennedy will approach the maximum NHL salary allowed for rookies, which was $875,000 this year, and he could make about $60,000 in the AHL. He can make a strong case for big money even though he was a sixth-round pick who was acquired from Washington in the 2005 NHL draft. Kennedy, who turns 22 next month, led one of the nation’s top teams in scoring the last two seasons.

Boston College forward Nathan Gerbe, among the nation’s leading scorers, and University of Denver defenseman Chris Butler could be in similar situations assuming the Sabres sign them and begin replenishing their stock. Plans call for them to have their own affiliate next season, which means more roster spots for prospects.

“In an ideal world, everybody would love to have their own farm team,” Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier said. “A lot of other things come into play.”

Feud among owners

The question being asked is not how many players, but where will they play? Sources said recently that Portland, Maine, was a likely destination. It would end the Sabres’ 29-year relationship with the Amerks, the longest current partnership between an NHL team and its AHL affiliate.

Amerks President Steve Donner and businessman Walter Turek each own 40 percent of the franchise while Massachusetts-based investor Randall Latona owns the other 20 percent. Financial problems led to a power struggle with each other and the Sabres for the past several years.

Their feud is expected to result in Turek, once a top adviser to Sabres owner B. Thomas Golisano, and Latona being bought out in the next few weeks by an unidentified investor who would own 51 percent. Donner will probably own the rest. Regardless, the Amerks will likely continue their relationship with Florida and bid farewell to Buffalo.

“It’s disappointing and sad in many ways that we couldn’t find a way to resolve our differences,” Donner said. “Given the nature of how our relationship is right now, a fresh start for both sides is probably a positive thing.”

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