by Patrick Williams
Rochester Americans head coach Chris Taylor is fully aware of the tradition that comes with his post.
With the parent Buffalo Sabres in the midst of a major rebuilding project, the Amerks are in the Calder Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2014. Taylor will try to lead the Amerks to their first playoff series victory since 2005. That will require getting past the rival Syracuse Crunch in a best-of-five first-round series if the Amerks are to win the seventh Calder Cup in franchise history.
With two championships as a player, a storied career in Rochester during some of the franchise’s best seasons, and spending last season in the Pittsburgh Penguins organization, Taylor knows what a winning culture looks and feels like.
“The biggest thing when I went to the Pittsburgh organization is how everybody bought in,” said Taylor, who was a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins assistant coach last season before being hired in Rochester last summer. “You go to training camp and see Sidney Crosby and how hard he works, and it carried over in the AHL.
“So now we’ve got to build up in this organization. It’s got to start [in Rochester]. That’s why we put a lot of care and we keep putting [prospects] out there. They’re going to make mistakes.”
Taylor and the Amerks endured their fair share of struggle in his first season as head coach. The Amerks put up a first-half challenge against the powerhouse Toronto Marlies and held a 23-8-4-3 record on January 12. However, Rochester battled health problems throughout the second half, including a lower-body injury that kept rookie C.J. Smith out of the line-up for a month. Smith, 23, went on to finish with 17-27-44 in 57 regular-season games, placing him third in team scoring.
It all added up to a 37-22-11-6 record that put them in third place in the North Division and landed them the first-round date against Syracuse, last season’s Calder Cup finalist. Still, the Amerks’ 91 points were the most for a Rochester team since the 2009-10 team reached that same total.
Along with preparing Buffalo prospects for eventual NHL full-time work, it is Taylor’s task to establish a winning culture in Rochester. The Sabres, led by general manager and former Amerk Jason Botterill, have stated winning will matter in Rochester. Botterill wants his young players to experience winning hockey, go on Calder Cup Playoff runs, and then bring those high standards with them an hour west to Buffalo when the NHL call comes.
Taylor and Botterill know what winning in Rochester feels like. Taylor played parts of nine seasons in Rochester and is a member of the Amerks Hall of Fame. In his 519 games in Rochester, fourth-most in franchise history, he also ended up placing third in team history with 339 assists, fifth in points (481), and 10th in goals (142). A three-time team most valuable player, he also led the team in scoring three times.
He also spent five seasons in coaching support roles in Rochester after retiring in 2011.
When Botterill landed the Buffalo job, Taylor became an obvious choice for the head-coaching vacancy in Rochester.
Taylor’s work in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, where Botterill served as an assistant general manager for Pittsburgh overseeing AHL operations, gave him a look at a different organization. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has long established one of the most productive NHL-AHL pipelines in hockey that has helped to send Pittsburgh to back-to-back Stanley Cup championships. While doing so, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has also reached the Calder Cup Playoffs for the 16th consecutive season this spring and made a competitive, winning atmosphere parts of its successful formula for sending young talent to Pittsburgh ready to compete in high-pressure situations.
Piling up wins, like the Amerks did until mid-January, makes selling a coaching message much easier. The real test came when the AHL season’s grind began to clamp down on his team in February.
“It’s easy to get mad and go the other way,” Taylor said at the time. “It’s going to make our team better.
“The biggest thing is when you go through this stuff and are trying to change the culture, when you’re winning, everyone is happy. How do they respond when we’re not winning? Are we still coming in talking to each other? Still coming in and working hard?
“We’re all good friends here. We all care about each other. Are we getting on each other’s backs and talking about each other? No.
“The culture is changing. That’s a good thing. Guys are caring. They’re not just coming off and worrying about where we’re going next. They’re pretty upset.”
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports. He was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.