By Warren Kozireski —
It has been more than four decades since Loverboy had a hit single named “The Kid is Hot Tonite” coming two decades before many of this season’s Amerks players were born, but Rochester fans should hope it gets a lot of airplay on the Blue Cross Arena sound system as the team could feature as many as eight Buffalo draft picks playing as AHL rookies in the regular lineup this season.
First round draft picks Jiri Kulich (2022) and Isak Rosen (2021), second round selection Aleksandr Kisakov (2021) and third rounder Josh Bloom (2021) are joined by later picks Filip Cederqvist (5th in 2019), Lukas Rousek (6th in 2019 and only played 19 games with Rochester last season) and 2021 seventh rounder Tyson Kozak.
Kulich, Rosen and Rousek played on a line together during the Sabres Prospect Tournament and dominated.
“They were really good,” Rochester head coach Seth Appert said after the second game of the tournament. “That was the thought coming into camp was that those three would be together.
“Rousek is a passer who sees the ice incredibly well and we saw that last year in the playoffs and those two (Kulich and Rosen) are both really good players, but also have goal scoring ability and we thought that would be a good mix.”
Kulich impressed last season especially on the international stage as he scored 11 points in six games as captain of the Czechia U-18 team and added eight points over seven games as one of the youngest on the U-20 squad at the World Junior tournament.
Rosen was equally impressive with four goals and five points in seven games with Team Sweden at the World Juniors while Rousek missed much of last season with an injury before returning late in the regular season and played an expending role in all three rounds of the playoffs.
Kisakov netted 26 goals with 56 points in 51 games with MHL Dynamo Moskva last season while Bloom scored 30 goals with 31 assists over 67 games with Saginaw in the OHL a year ago.
Cederqvist impressed at the Prospect Tournament using his 6’3”, 208 lb. frame to win board battles. He is coming off a 32-point campaign with Djurgardens in the Swedish league. And Kozak dominated the same tourney with two, two-goal games. He is coming off a 32 goal, 37 assists season with Portland in the WHL.
But longtime fans know that there is a huge learning curve for young players competing against men in the American Hockey League and the organization has stockpiled several veterans and returners to mentor the youth.
Michael Mersch, Sean Malone, Brendan Warren, Mason Jobst and Brett Murray are back at forward along with Brandon Biro, JJ Peterka, Linus Weissbach. They will mix and match with the newcomers to help the adjustment process while providing much-needed offense after combining for 102 goals in Rochester last season.
Weissbach surprised some with a solid first American Hockey League season after four years at the University of Wisconsin. He netted 16 goals with 21 assists in 67 games with Rochester and entered this season with more confidence.
“It started with Rookie Camp and I’ve been building from that,” Weissbach said. “Wherever I end up to start the season, that will be my mindset going forward. Coming into last year I really had no idea what to expect…so I think I learned a lot and trying to take that and try to adapt to this year.
“I got paired up with JJ (Peterka) the first week of rookie camp, so we kind of followed each other the whole year. To play at this level for that many games I think you have to find a way to contribute and way you can and some days that’s to score and some days it’s to play hard on the puck.”
Rousek and Biro were linemates late in the regular season and postseason last season and again during the Buffalo Sabres preseason.
“Once he (Rousek) got healthy we were linemates down the stretch and into the playoffs, so I’ know he’s not a big shooter and every time he gets it, I try to get to open space because I know he going to find the lane and look for a pass,” Biro said. “He’s a special player.”
“It’s exciting to be competing with guys who are going to elevate you and really turn this team into a contender…and I really want to be a part of that and hopefully I can grow with these young prospects and find my way to be a good support guy alongside the elite talent that’s coming up, so it’s an exciting time.”
It will likely be largely a veteran crew manning the Amerks blueline in returners Mitch Eliot, Casey Fitzgerald, Oskari Laaksonen, Lawrence Pilut, Ethan Prow and Peter Tischke with Pilut returning to North America after two seasons in Europe.
It will be a key year for goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who against fought through some injuries and played a combined 44 games with Rochester and Buffalo last season—the most games since his last season of juniors in Sudbury in 2018-19.
He had a 3.28 goals against average and .900 save percentage in his AHL contests; numbers that need to improve if the former second round draft pick is to continue to remain on the Buffalo radar as their goalie of the future.
Veterans Michael Houser and Malcolm Subban will vie to be the back-up.
The 67th season of Rochester Americans hockey begins Fri. Oct. 14 against Toronto.