‘You feel for everybody’ says Amerks coach Chris Taylor. The third-year coach and Amerks Hall of Famer as a player is waiting and hoping AHL season can resume when coronavirus crisis is contained. (Photo: Max Schulte / Rochester Democrat and Chronicle)
As he spends his days preparing for a postseason that may never come, Rochester Americans coach Chris Taylor has also taken the time sit, reflect and give thanks.
Had the novel coronavirus not forced the American Hockey League, like the rest of the sports world, to hit the pause button on March 12, the Amerks (33-20-9) would have been wrapping up their regular season with games against Bridgeport and Binghamton on Friday and Saturday.
Resting securely in fourth place in the Eastern Conference with 75 points, they would have learned their playoff position for a third consecutive season under Taylor. Their “Redemption Tour,’’ the chance to atone for consecutive first-round playoff exits, would’ve been shifting into high gear.
Instead, things are stuck in neutral with no indication when the season will resume, if it resumes.
To stay ready, Taylor stays in touch with his players, most who have returned to their off-season homes, and assistants, Gord Dineen and Toby Petersen, through video conferencing, text messages and phone conversations.
He reviews game tape, trying to spot that one small thing that will make his team’s power play or penalty killing units better. The analytics usually done at the end of a season, Taylor is doing now. All while hunkered down inside his Churchville home with his wife, Lisa, son, Nick, 23, and daughter Samantha, 19.
Like the rest of the world, the Taylors are staying occupied, staying safe, and doing their part to defend the spread of a viral pandemic that has infected 1.3 million people worldwide as of Monday, killing 74,000, including more than 10,000 in the United States.
“It’s been hard,’’ Taylor said. “Our son is special needs and he always likes going out and doing different things so it’s hard to stay home. Our daughter was at university (Brock in St. Catharines, Ontario) and that was cut short. But everyone has a story. You feel for everybody.’’
Taylor feels badly that he can’t coach and his players can’t play, not so much for themselves but because of what sports has always provided during times of crisis: A respite from the storm. A chance to be with others. Leave it to a highly contagious virus to take even that away.
“It sure puts things into perspective and just makes you appreciate what everyone has,’’ Taylor said. “The biggest thing to come out of this is that you really learn about your family and everyone around you. The first responders, the medical people, it’s remarkable what those people are doing.’’
The six-time champion Amerks haven’t won a Calder Cup in 24 years, made a final in 20 or won a playoff series in 15. Like stitches that won’t heal, those facts gnaw at one of hockey’s most storied franchises. They also drive everyone currently associated with the club, those who have inherited history and the job of changing it.
Owners Terry and Kim Pegula have yet to return the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres (nine seasons out of the playoffs) to relevance, but they have made good on rebuilding the farm system under general managers Jason Botterill and Randy Sexton.
After 91- and 99-point campaigns, the Amerks were on pace for 92 this season when the ice was pulled from beneath their skates.
The story inside those point totals is veterans with talent and mentorship qualities being signed each season to complement young free agents and draft picks that actually have NHL potential. You know, like the old days.
For Taylor, it’s been the craziest of seasons.
He started the year in Buffalo lending new head coach Ralph Krueger a hand while assistant Don Granato was out on medical leave. Thanks to the Amerks being in good hands with Dineen, Petersen and interim assistant Adam Mair, Taylor returned to a team sporting a 12-3-3 record in late November. By Christmas, Rochester was 20-6-4.
Then, right on schedule, the injuries and recalls came.
But where Rochester teams during the ill-fated Tim Murray years would fold like a guilty husband, this group countered a seven-game losing streak with a six-game win streak, then secured their standing as a playoff contender by cobbling nine of a possible 12 points during a critical six-game February homestand.
Back-to-back wins at North Division leader Belleville proceeded a home loss to Binghamton when the league shutdown happened.
It still seems surreal to Taylor.
“We were at the rink and ready for a meeting and got the call that we shouldn’t practice, that was the last meeting with the players and staff and we all went our separate ways,’’ the Amerks Hall of Famer said. “I felt we were trending in the right way, our young guys playing big-time minutes and responding with big-time moments, and that’s what you want in player development. They were out there doing a great job for us. That’s the hard part for us now. I thought we were really coming together.’’
If there is no postseason, the hurt will be felt by players all along the spectrum.
The veterans past 30 like Nathan Paetsch, Kevin Porter, Andrew Hammond and Zach Redmond who don’t have the luxury of saying “see you next season’’ many more times.
The young veterans still chasing the dream like leading scorers Jean-Sebastian Dea and Andrew Oglevie and C.J. Smith who are having fine seasons.
The Sabres’ draft picks who will miss the incalculable benefits of a deep, intense playoff run. There are 10 of them dating back seven years led by 2017 first-rounder Casey Mittelstadt, who in 36 games since his reassignment has 25 points on nine goals and 16 assists.
Buffalo is hoping Mittelstadt’s extended stay in Rochester will do for him what it did for Victor Olofsson, who has 20 goals in his first full season in Buffalo.
Other picks in Rochester are forwards Eric Cornel, Rasmus Asplund, Sean Malone and rookie Brett Murray along with defensemen Will Borgen, Casey Fitzgerald and rookie Jacob Bryson. Each were thriving with more playing time and greater responsibilities.
The same goes for Jonas Johansson and rookie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who comprise a possible Sabres’ future goalie tandem.
Now the hockey buzz phrase “Playing meaningful games’’ spoken this time of year has been replaced by “Practice social distancing.’’
“Our job is to make sure these players are playing for the Buffalo Sabres some day and I believe we’re trending in the right way,’’ Taylor said. “We’re making playoffs and we’re developing players, but it’s still a process and we need to make sure we’re patient with it.’’
Even through a pandemic. What’s Taylor’s gut telling him? If play were to resume, he would be in favor of jumping right into the playoffs with a week of start-up time, he said.
“Obviously, you want to keep positive and think we’ll be able to play but with all the uncertainty, it’s tough to say,’’ Taylor said. “I just want everyone to be healthy and I pray the curve goes the other way and life can get back to normal for everybody. That’s the biggest concern for all of us.’’
Until further notice, playoff redemption is in quarantine.
Contact sports columnist Leo Roth at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @leoroth. We exist only through support from readers. Please consider a subscription.