‘This was special’: Appert, Amerks reflect on season

Photo: Micheline Veluvolu

📝 by Patrick Williams

The end of a Calder Cup Playoff run is an abrupt one.

A week ago, the Rochester Americans were fully locked in a fight with the Hershey Bears for the right to represent the Eastern Conference in the Calder Cup Finals. This weekend, the Amerks are packing their bags, gathering for end-of-season meetings, and heading out the door.

Friday night’s 1-0 loss in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals ended a six-week charge through the Calder Cup Playoffs in which the Amerks dodged elimination three times in the North Division semifinals against Syracuse, swept Toronto in the North Division finals, and then won twice in Hershey to push a stout Bears team into a long series. It was the franchise’s deepest playoff run since reaching the Calder Cup Finals in 2000.

“I know this,” head coach Seth Appert told reporters minutes after Friday’s loss. “When I look back at this group, it’ll bring a smile to my face how much they loved playing for each other, how much fun they were to coach, the attitude and the work ethic they came to the rink with every day, and then just the immense growth of the team. They had to fight really hard to become a team that really played the right way, loved playing for each other, and loved being Amerks. But we grew to that, and I’m incredibly proud of them.”

“I’m proud of what this group fought to become.”

But now comes change. It always does. The nature of the business of hockey being what it is, this group will not be together again. Some players are destined for roles with the parent Buffalo Sabres. Others will return to the Amerks. Another portion will seek their opportunities elsewhere. It’s just the way it is.

“I told them how proud I am of how they represented the organization, how they represented the Amerks, the city,” Appert said of his message inside the Rochester dressing room immediately after the game. “How fortunate I felt to get to coach them and what they gave me, the run that they gave our staff and our fans. This was special.”

By no means was Rochester a lock to even qualify for the Calder Cup Playoffs, let alone play into June. Hit hard by injuries and player recalls, the Amerks spent much of the second half of the regular season just trying to stay on the right side of the North Division playoff line. Appert admitted that he and his coaching staff had concerns back in December and January about just how far the team had to go.

Said captain Michael Mersch, “You take a step back, which is kind of hard to do right now, and you look at everything from September training camp to where we are today. You look at the big picture — for us to be where we are today was pretty special.

“We had a process that we stuck with throughout the year and coaches, players all bought into trying to become better. [It was] development where everybody, even myself, we just all got better.”

Saturday, Appert reflected some more.

“Still bitterly disappointed,” Appert said in trying to sum up the window of time since his club’s season had come to a halt. “I’m still very, very torn up about the loss, because we were right there, and you felt like we were capable of winning the Calder Cup. But at the same time, I’m also incredibly proud of what this group became and how far they took us.”

Buffalo general manager Kevyn Adams brought Appert to the organization in 2020 and gave him a mandate: develop an incoming stream of prospects. Everything that happened in Rochester would be critical for the extensive rebuild that Adams had inherited and reshaped after taking his post two months before the Appert hiring. The Sabres had high draft picks cycling into the system and more picks on the way as Adams settled into the role. If Appert could not fulfill that mandate, then the Buffalo rebuild would be in peril.

Nearly three years later there are clear results.

Forward Jack Quinn, taken eighth overall in the 2020 NHL Draft, went to Rochester as an 18-year-old. He later was named the AHL rookie of the year for the 2021-22 season and is now a full-timer with the Sabres. Another product of that 2020 draft class, second-rounder JJ Peterka, led the AHL in rookie scoring last season and has joined Peterka with the Buffalo forwards corps. Goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen overcame hip surgery, played parts of three seasons for Appert, and has stuck with the Sabres.

And Rochester is positioned to deliver more NHL-ready talent soon. First-round picks Jiri Kulich and Isak Rosen had excellent first seasons as AHL forwards. Filip Cederqvist, Tyson Kozak, Brett Murray, Lukas Rousek and Linus Weissbach were among the young forwards who showed promise. An injury cost Brandon Biro this postseason run, but he has grown into an excellent two-way forward who can compete for a job in Buffalo.

“We’re proud of what we’ve become,” Appert said.

But how do the Sabres and Amerks continue to drive successful development in Rochester? Buffalo has piled up draft picks in recent years, with 11 selections in each of the past two drafts. Matthew Savoie, the ninth overall choice in the 2022 Draft, made his pro debut in the conference finals. Waves of prospects are bound for Rochester in the next two to three years.

There is a highly competitive, positive, and player-focused culture that Appert and his staff have built. But with offseason departures bringing roster changes, that environment is hardly guaranteed. It will take work to retain what the Amerks do have already as well as to build on it. Appert repeatedly has stressed that when the Sabres go looking for veteran help in Rochester, they will not sacrifice character and leadership in that search.

“I think that culture is always evolving,” Appert explained. “I do believe strongly that if you feel your culture is set, you’re going to lose it very quickly. You have to fight for it every single day. You have to be very intentional about how you go about it: The decisions you make. The things I say to my players. The things I say to my staff. How we speak to each other. How we treat each other. Who we sign this offseason to be culture drivers for our young players.

“All of those things are very important factors in creating the culture that we’ve been able to fight for here.”

After taking time to process this season, the Sabres will begin to take on what is next for Rochester. Development camp is only weeks away. Free agency opens July 1. But whatever happens, the group that left the ice Friday night will not return in full.

“To not get to come and practice or have another game with them is probably worse than anything,” Appert said Friday. “There’s going to be a North Division banner in this rink for the first time in two decades, and it’s not the banner we wanted, but it’s still a banner we’re going to be damn proud of.”