For the Rochester Americans, the upcoming American Hockey League season will largely be an effort to erase the bad memories of 2005-06, when the second-oldest franchise in the league missed the playoffs for the first time since 1989.
The Amerks struggled for much of last season, thanks partially to the disruptive onset of dual affiliation between the NHL's Buffalo Sabres and Florida Panthers. What's more, both of those parent teams suffered numerous injuries during the year and compensated by plundering the Amerks' roster. Because of that, the 2005-06 Amerks never completely clicked as a unit, resulting in a disappointing, disheartening season.
The task of shaping a team that can rebound from that falls to Rochester coach Randy Cunneyworth, a cagey vet who's guided the Amerks for seven seasons. And it'll be a tough task, too: the 2006-07 team is loaded with rookies and other newcomers who lack the experience that past Rochester teams have had. Other obstacles include the loss of captain and team leader Chris Taylor, the stiff competition in the AHL's North Division, and the ever-evolving rules handed down by the AHL in an effort to create a faster, cleaner game.
The team began training camp in late September at the ESL Sports Centre, and after the first night of practice Cunneyworth spoke with City about his team's prospects for this season, which starts Friday, October 6, against Albany.
City: How would you describe last season?
Randy Cunneyworth: It was a disappointing one from the standpoint of missing the mark. The playoffs are the ultimate goal. I think the guys missed out on a real opportunity to show their wares. That's unfortunate, but obviously we'll try to do a better job this year. It comes with teamwork and commitment.
What would you tell fans heading into this season? What can they expect this year?
Overall we want to learn from our mistakes. In this situation of dual affiliation, we have to be a little bit patient. We are a little bit younger this year, but through the experience the boys are going to attain early on, I think they can be a much better team --- and as quickly as possible. I'm not saying that by the end we're looking for that little jump, we're looking for that right away. It's a quicker game now, so I think the young legs will be a benefit to our game. We want to play a high-pressure type of game where guys are working hard and we're rolling the lines.
What does losing Chris Taylor mean to this team?
Chris was a well-rounded player that led by example, but also behind the scenes was the leader in that dressing room. He held the team together in a lot of ways, but I think it's up to somebody else to take on some responsibility that Chris Taylor had on and off the ice.
Anyone in particular?
It's probably going to take a couple guys to fill that role, at least early on. It will take a team effort. I think [winger] Mark Mancari is a guy that comes up. Anybody who's been through a season here in the AHL and is a good prospect will figure out very quickly that leadership has to come from within.
You mentioned dual affiliation. What are your thoughts? Did it work last year, and will it work this year?
[Smile, small laugh] I think [last season] we were a very different team throughout the season at different times. When the injury bug hits the parent club, it hits double fold [with the AHL affiliate]. I think everybody has to realize that. It's really having the subsequent people to come in and do a good job and fill in until we get the guys back healthy again.
What kind of team would you like to put on the ice in an ideal world?
It's a hard-hitting, fast-skating team. [Speed] can enhance a team's chance of winning. We want a disciplined team that's going to know the new rules. It's the wave of the future, and we've got a good jump on it. We don't want to be behind anybody. I think the young guys who are coming from any other level will understand they have to know these rules and abide by them and become better hockey players. If you're a player that needs to work on your skating, if you're too slow for the game, you've got to get on your horse and learn that part of it.
Who are the teams to beat this year? Who are you looking at to really give you a challenge?
Anybody in our division is going to be a challenge. You play those guys so often, you have to know them like the back of your hand. I think our closest rivalry, Syracuse, will always be an entertaining rivalry, both physically and mentally. You build those rivalries up over time. [But] it's important that we look after our own game. If we can come up with a game plan that we need, I think we'll be fine. Guys will come through and do their job.
The Rochester Americans open their season Friday, October 6, at 7:35 p.m. against the Albany River Rats at Blue Cross Arena. For tickets go to the BCA box office, call 454-5335, or go to www.amerks.com.