Amerks leadership core a key part of Sabres’ development plan

Photo: Micheline Veluvolu

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

When Buffalo Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams hired Seth Appert to take over the Rochester Americans in August 2020, he made it clear that his new AHL head coach’s mandate was to ready the organization’s prospects on – and off – the ice in Rochester.

Buffalo had been mired in an ongoing rebuild for years; building eventual success in Buffalo would require first setting up the environment that Adams sought for Rochester.

With Appert’s background featuring 20 years in coaching at the collegiate level along with three more campaigns at the storied U.S. National Team Development Program, the move made sense.

But Appert himself could not do it alone as he took on the pro game for the first time. Leadership needed to come from within the room too. So in came the likes of Michael Mersch, who is in his third season as captain of the storied Amerks franchise. Ethan Prow, Brandon Biro and Brett Murray now round out a leadership group that has also recently included Matt Bartkowski, Sean Malone, Lawrence Pilut and Malcolm Subban among others. Leadership roles must constantly be reshaped in the AHL. Prow has served as an alternate captain before, but Biro, a captain at Penn State, and Murray are wearing letters for the first time as pros.

Certainly there are on-ice challenges for young pros, the demanding level of play just a step below the NHL, and the pressure that comes with trying to build consistency and reliability. There isn’t the cocoon of a college campus or a billet family anymore. Or, in other cases, the familiarity of one’s home country. There is housing to find, bills to play, meals to prepare, and much more beyond anything that happens on the ice. And it all comes with that pressure to perform with each practice and game over a regular season stretching more than six months.

Appert believes a strong support system is critical.

“If we don’t provide enough support off the ice, in their life, they’re not going to be good on the ice at 18, 19, 20 years old. They have to have life in order, and there’s a lot that goes into it. A lot of it falls on their teammates. We have a great older group that looks out for our players and takes care of our young guys.”

And it is a young group. In recent years, Rochester has sent Peyton Krebs, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, Casey Mittelstadt, Victor Olofsson, JJ Peterka, Jack Quinn and Mattias Samuelsson onward to Buffalo. Last season, the Amerks shepherded two recent Buffalo first-round picks, forwards Isak Rosen and Jiri Kulich, through their first seasons of North American pro hockey.

Now there is another group of young talent taking on the AHL for the first time. Defenseman Nikita Novikov, 20, went to the Sabres in the sixth round of the 2021 NHL Draft and already has 94 games of experience in the Kontinental Hockey League. Forward Viktor Neuchev, who turns 20 on Wednesday, was a 2022 third-round pick by the Sabres. Matthew Savoie has joined the Amerks on a conditioning assignment from Buffalo; the 19-year-old was the ninth overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft and made his pro debut with Rochester during last spring’s Calder Cup Playoffs. And then there is defenseman Ryan Johnson, a 2019 Sabres first-round pick beginning his pro career after four seasons at the University of Minnesota.

The Sabres need young talent to continue to pan out if they are to emerge as an NHL contender long-term. They will be counting on their AHL leaders to guide a group of players who are teenagers or barely out of their teens and trying to balance hockey as a job with building an adult life.

Murray is a fifth-year pro in Rochester. He is also someone who is willing to listen to his young teammates and any challenges they may face.

“No one comes into professional hockey not being a rookie,” the 25-year-old Murray said. “Everyone has been through the tough battles of cracking the lineup, trying to perform, and the stress. My advice is to lean on older guys. We have a lot of guys in the locker room that can speak to these players and tell them their own experiences and try to guide them through some of the crazy times that a rookie can experience.”

Said Prow, “We’re all in this together.”

That help can go beyond being a sounding board, too. Biro leaned on his captain to fashion an on- and off-ice routine that could work well for him. Taking care of one’s body is a must for long-term pro success. But the details that come with that require time.

“I think as you get older, it’s really important to have a daily routine that you stick to every day,” Biro said. “Michael Mersch is the one that had a big impact on me. He does the same kind of warm-up, same routine, every single day.”

Appert does his own work as well.

“Especially the young guys, I check in with them almost every day,” he said. “How life is. How their living set-up is. Do they miss home? How their parents are doing, siblings, things like that, because that’s such a critical component of them succeeding on the ice.”

But the Amerks go beyond that as well. Video coach Amir Gulati also handles team services in Rochester. That means managing team travel and other such tasks, but he also digs into the nitty-gritty tasks of everyday life that come with anyone starting life in a new city, to say nothing of a new country.

“He does just an unbelievable job with those guys, kind of hand-holding them at the start,” Appert said. “Making sure they get into proper apartments that are going to be good homes, that are close to the rink, that have other players around them, so they have a support network. Amir does a fantastic job of making sure their finances, their apartment, their living set-up is all taken care of.

“If their life is in order off the ice, in their habits and how they’re living, it’s a lot easier for us to help them become great players on the ice.”