They're calling it Sabres University and Ron Rolston is the professor.
Rolston, the first-year coach of the Rochester Americans, has a skilled team as the Sabres and the Amerks are reunited again after four years apart. There will be plenty of teaching opportunities on a roster filled with Buffalo prospects.
"The organization has been first-class and this is a great situation," Rolston said this week by phone. "All of the players on the team are excited on a daily basis to get better. They want to grow and develop as players. That's exciting as a coach to have that level of enthusiasm throughout your team."
Rolston, hired over the summer from the U.S. Developmental Team, makes his debut as a professional coach after a long career in the college and amateur ranks. The Amerks open the season Saturday night in Hamilton and the home opener is Oct. 13 in Blue Cross Arena against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Sabres owner Terry Pegula purchased the Amerks in July and will be flying in dozens of alumni for the home opener, just as he did on Fan Appreciation Night in Buffalo in April. And just like the Sabres did, the Amerks personally delivered season tickets to fans during training camp. Rolston was part of the groups and was impressed by the enthusiasm about Rochester being back with Buffalo.
"It was an attitude that was everywhere," he said. "Every stop we had, the first thing you heard was how happy people were to be back in Buffalo, especially with Terry Pegula's ownership. They're excited about the resources and what they're going to put in the program here. There's a good buzz."
"This is what every NHL team wants, an affiliate that's close by," said winger Marcus Foligno. "And I think that's what you want when you're in a position to be called up too."
Rolston got things started in September by coaching the Sabres to the championship of the Traverse City Prospects Tournament and several of those players will be in Rochester.
"He was a great teacher. He was exactly what I expected, and more," said Foligno. "We got right from the get-go what he was trying to teach us, the development skills, getting us ready for main camp, and that's what we're going to expect all year in Rochester. We're looking forward to it."
"It was good for me to see the players in the organization and get a feel for them, even the ones not signed or just trying out with us," Rolston said. "All the players there were very focused in winning a championship. It's a prospects tournament and not the [AHL] Calder Cup but anytime you can win with a group of guys, you have to do a lot of things right. You have to do a lot to win hockey games, be detailed and that carries over on a daily basis."
Foligno and former No. 1 pick Zack Kassian are the marquee names on the Rochester prospect list. They formed a dominant line with Luke Adam in Michigan that could get reunited in the AHL, although Adam is starting the season with the Sabres.
"Marcus and Zack are both big strong bodies, skate well and have great stick skills," Rolston said. "There's a lot of prommise and potential in both but they know there's a lot of work to be done in their development. Rochester is a perfect place for them to start."
While Foligno and Kassian will get plenty of attention, the Amerks actually figure to be a stronger team from the net out. AHL veteran Drew MacIntyre and Williamsville native David Leggio, who won 22 games last year in Portland, will share the goaltending duties. Leggio has been nursing a concussion and may be replaced Saturday by Jeff Jakaitis while MacIntyre is in Europe with the Sabres.
They will play behind a strong defense corps featuring prospects like T.J. Brennan, Brayden McNabb, Dennis Persson, Drew Schiestel and Alex Biega.
"That group of defensemen held up pretty well [during NHL training camp]," said Sabres coach Lindy Ruff. "You can throw out the 1-2 big mistakes because just the battle and composure they showed inside the games should bode well for the American League. If you have a good defense, it starts there."
Offense is a question mark, especially with Adam and Matt Ellis currently with the Sabres.
The Amerks lost a lot of offense from last year's Portland team, both up front and with the promotion of defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani to the NHL. Then veteran Ales Kotalik declined his AHL assignment. They'll need Kassian and Foligno to score and the same goes for prospect Corey Tropp. Veterans like Derek Whitmore, Colin Stuart and Michael Ryan, back after three season out of the organization, need to contribute.
> On the farm /Key facts on the Rochester Amerks season
Head coach: Ron Rolston. Assistants: Chadd Cassidy, Jay McKee, Chris Taylor, Bob Janosz. Top Sabres prospects: Zack Kassian, Marcus Foligno, Brayden McNabb, Corey Tropp, T.J. Brennan, Dennis Persson, Drew Schiestel.
Schedule: Season opener is Saturday at Hamilton, 7 p.m.
League alignment: The Amerks are in the North Division of the AHL's Western Conference with Hamilton (Montreal), Lake Erie (Colorado), Grand Rapids (Detroit) and Toronto (Toronto).
Blue Cross Arena Directions: Take the Thruway to Exit 47 (LeRoy). Follow I-490 East about 18 miles into the city. Take Exit 13 (Plymouth Avenue) and turn right. Turn left at Broad (third light). The arena is at the corner of Broad and Exchange, about 75 minutes from Buffalo.
Tickets: Weekday games are $16, $14 and $11 while weekends are $18, $16, $12. The home opener (Oct. 13 against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton) will be priced at $12 and $11.
All tickets are available at Blue Cross Arena box office, Amerks.com or by calling 1-800-745-3000. Full season tickets ($10 per game), half-season ($12)
and 10 packs ($14) are still available.