A Closer Locker Room and a Winning Team with Everybody Contributing

The Rochester Americans are currently in first place in the North Division and they also have three of the league’s top 10 players in points. One of those two things isn’t as important to the team and it’s not the standings. Last season in the American League the leagues leader in points played for the last place team in the league. Two other players in the top 10 were on teams that didn’t make the playoffs.

“Points don’t matter to me, I’ve always said this. I don’t even know who’s leading our team in points right now,” Chris Taylor said after a recent practice. “Someone may have said Olofsson, I don’t know. It might be Redmond, I don’t know. Pilut, I don’t know. I know they’re at the top but I don’t even know. Someone told me that it was Bailey’s first two goals (vs Cleveland), I thought he actually scored before. I look at how they do away from the puck, how they do on wall plays, what they bring and if they generate offense for our team.”

Those details with and without the puck are worked on daily during practices. Putting a puck into the net may end some drills but the focus is on everything else. One example of this was last Thursday at practice. The drill involved passing to a player’s stick at the neutral zone face off dot as he was entering the zone. Some passes connected, some were in feet, others were way off the mark. It was messy.

Chris Taylor started counting out one, two, three.. as passes were hitting sticks. When there was a miss he started over. I asked him about that and he said, “It’s amazing because that ended the drill, they loved that. It’s amazing when they make 10 passes in a row and it ended the drill, isn’t that funny?”

Drills can become routine in any sport where you just go through the motions. Taylor noticed that happening and started counting. The guys picked up on it, perfected it, picked up the pace and they were done with it.

In the American League there are very few public stats available compared to the NHL. We have goals, assists, shots, penalty minutes and plus/minus. That’s it. In a world of advanced stats and analytics we’re still living in the 1960’s with what is publicly available. Besides points, there’s two starting points for everyone outside of a team when it comes to talking about players – plus/minus and the eye test – watching every game. Teams track everything else from time on ice, hits, face off wins, blocked shots, shots blocked, scoring attempts, turnovers and the list goes on.

When I asked Kevin Porter about stats he said everything is known internally. He added, “Crisco (Kyle Criscuolo) and I go over our face offs all the time and I’m sure the other centers do too. They track blocked shots, turnovers and giveaways and things like that. We definitely take a look at those things.”

Those stats are why the team can say at times they played a decent game where as everyone else may disagree. They have the stats to prove that besides the score they did things well. It’s also the reason they weren’t ecstatic after a recent 4-0 win over Utica.

Justin Bailey had a big week scoring for the first time in his 12th game of the season and then carrying that over into the next game. That’s not to say he wasn’t getting chances. The team tracks breakaways and he was getting the chances on those but just didn’t connect until Wednesday.

When he wasn’t scoring Justin Bailey said, “you try to build little successes throughout the game whether it’s good play on the wall, a blocked shot or things that as a team we need.”

The Amerks are rolling four lines and everyone is focusing on those details and as Bailey said, little successes.

“Playoffs are going to come down to blocked shots and hard work,” Kevin Porter said. “Those little details are what’s going to carry us into the post season and hopefully go a long way.”

When I had asked team leading goal scorer Zach Redmond about blocked shots he said, “that’s stuff you have to have on a nightly basis especially in a tight game. Throughout the course of the year those good habits start to become part of your game.”

“I think we know what Randy and the staff put together as far as a team in here.” Redmond added, “they set us up to win, they give us every resource to win and on top of that they put a bunch of character in here. We have everything we need and I think the guys realize what a great opportunity it is and we’re taking advantage of it.”

Small plays were a big part of the 5-2 win last Wednesday against Cleveland and carried into the overtime win against Syracuse on Friday. Porter referred to one small play last Wednesday saying, “They’re a huge part of the game. Our first goal to go up 1-0 was off a d-zone face off. We don’t win that draw, you don’t have a good clear and Bails (Justin Bailey) doesn’t chase it down. Those are the little things that lead to a big goal for us.”

A big goal as a result of a small play at the opposite end of the ice.

A different play had some success this past Friday night in the final 89 seconds of the game. Gord Dineen went into the archives for a play he had learned from Randy Carlyle and it killed almost a minute off of the clock. Kevin Porter stood behind his goalie, Adam Wilcox, and waited for Syracuse to dump the puck into the zone. He popped out and immediately cleared it, the same scenario repeated itself, Porter cleared it again, Syracuse never had a chance at retrieval in the zone. That sequence took almost a minute off of the clock. Read more about that here:

One player that has been asked about frequently is Rasmus Asplund because he only has one point in 14 games. Asplund is also a plus-7, second on the team tied with Alex Nylander, behind Lawrence Pilut at plus-14. That stat is a simple starting point in a league lacking public advanced stats. Using the eye test (just watching games) it’s clear he’s a contributor on the ice even though his name isn’t on score sheets.

I asked Taylor if stats back that up and he said, “I see it on the ice, I just know what he does on the ice for us. He’s probably been one of our best forwards for the last seven games.” He added, “Asplund had a terrific game for us Wednesday night. His angles and he created a lot of opportunities. The line rushes he created for us, his defensive style ended plays, his penalty kill and face offs. He’s a huge part of our team and everybody respects what he does.”

Working on, talking about and pointing out the details and stats that aren’t on the score sheet is something that has brought the team closer together.

Bailey talked about that saying, “As a team we’ve talked about making sure if a guy blocks a shot, or if a guy has a good back check, stuff that doesn’t show up on the score sheet at the end of the night we’re making sure that when he gets back to the bench he knows. I think that’s something we’ve done over the last five or six games that’s helped us as a team.”

When you hear them talk about caring about each other that’s what they’re referring to.

“Those are the intangibles that makes us a team,” Taylor said. “The big hit when we need a hit. The big block shot on a penalty kill is more than a goal and can turn the momentum for our team.”

“Sometimes like Dalton Smith and Veilleux the other night trying to change the game around for us. Those are big key moments for our team that we need and we respect those guys. Nothing is taken for granted on our team. Ever.”

Change within the organization started last season with the cliché culture. “It’s hard to do it in a year, we started last year with trying to change it,” Taylor said. “Obviously having a year and how we did in the playoffs we had to go to the drawing board again and find different ways to make our team better.”

An important off-season addition to this roster has been Wayne Simpson. He is playing on his fourth American League team yet Simpson said that this one stands out. He said, “I think depth is the one thing I identified early on that’s going to make our team. Especially over the course of a long 76 game season. It’s nice to have that.”

That word depth may start to seem cliché as well but it’s what carries teams to success in June. Chris Taylor said, “we want to create that balance of our team and make sure everybody is contributing. It makes everybody so much closer in the dressing room and it’s not divided. When you can have that and have that luxury that we have we have to use it.”

One way they have used depth was last Wednesday when (at the time) league leading goal scorer Zac Dalpe was on the starting line for Cleveland. Chris Taylor said, “I wanted to give Sean Malone the opportunity because he’s back in Buffalo, his first game back, I have trust in him. I have trust that Bailey was going out there too, he’s from Buffalo. I wanted to start these guys even though that’s the best line in the league and I wanted to start them and show I can play any line against anybody. That’s when you know you have good depth and a good team.” Sean Malone and Justin Bailey are both from the Buffalo area and were drafted by the Buffalo Sabres (you probably already knew that).

It’s a new atmosphere within the organization with all three hockey teams within the organization finding success early in the season. The Rochester Americans are in first place in their division, the Buffalo Sabres are currently (as of writing this) five points out of first place and two points out of second place. The Cincinnati Cyclones are in second place only three points out of first.

Rochester seeing success up there in Buffalo also means Cincinnati seeing success up in Rochester. Internal competition has been stressed and with every player striving to reach the next level they’re all aware of what is happening from within.

“We want the success up there. That’s big and that keeps pushing our guys to getting better. That’s what it’s all about,” Taylor said when talking about early wins for the Sabres. “Internally it’s good for the organization. We want our guys to watch those guys up there and see what they’re doing. If they’re doing that we have to do more, we have to be better, that’s what it’s all about. If they get their chance up there, someone gets banged or whatever they’re ready to go up there and fill that role and be good at that role, not just fill that role.”