Most of the Buffalo Sabres’ top prospects are up at Niagara University this week for the team’s rookie camp, and the caliber of talent in the pipeline should have this hockey team competitive for years to come. Say what you will about Darcy Regier (and I’ve said a lot in recent years, believe me), but he and his scouts have a keen eye for young talent. Many of these prospects will no doubt wear the Blue and Gold one day, and some may be used as trade bait in this new “win now” era in Pegulaville. Of course, a good many of these kids won’t even get a sniff of the NHL, simply because to make it, you need to be the best of the best.
But what about the ones that are too good for the AHL, but not good enough for the NHL?
As a Sabres fan for 30+ years, I have seen far too many of these “career minor leaguers” dominate at the AHL level, but for one reason or another, can’t hang on once they’re brought up to “the show”. These guys deserve tribute, as players who are never forgotten, but seldom remembered.
Jody Gage was originally drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in the 3rd round in the 1979 entry draft. He spent six years in the Red Wing organization, played in a grand total of 50 NHL games while accumulating 11 goals and 23 points. However, while playing for Detroit’s two minor league teams, he racked up 170 goals and 349 points in 399 games. In 1985, he signed as a free agent with the Buffalo Sabres and, over the course of the next 11 seasons, managed to dress for the Sabres 16 times. He scored 3 goals while up in Buffalo. Down on the farm, though, Gage became an Amerk legend. In 653 games, he scored 351 times and piled up 728 points.
So what gives?
Gage was, by NHL standards, deemed too slow and one-dimensional. Fans called for him whenever the Sabres needed a player to fill a roster spot, but quite often he was passed up for someone younger, quicker, bigger…and, many times, less talented.
Bobby Mongrain was a small, slick center the Sabres signed as a free agent in 1979. After tearing up the Quebec Major junior league with 66 goals, the Sabres decided to take a flyer on the 20-year old. His first professional season was promising, with Bobby splitting time between Rochester and Buffalo. He was a +6 with 10 points in 34 games with the big club, and things were looking up. The next year, however, saw Mongrain dress in only 4 games for the Sabres, while spending the rest of the year down in the AHL. The next four seasons would see him up with the parent club for only 32 games, while he basically lit up the AHL. In 322 career AHL games, all with Rochester, Mongrain popped 153 goals and 339 points. Concluding his career in North America, he spent 9 years playing in Europe, where he continued to dominate, averaging almost a GOAL a game during his career.
Too small? Too much of an offensive specialist? Whatever the case, Mongrain is yet another skilled player to get barely a cup of coffee in the NHL, only to flourish in the more wide-open leagues.
An undrafted sniper who played in 100 career NHL games, Mal Davis found the back of the net 31 times, amassing 53 points over parts of six NHL seasons. His best season with the Sabres came in 1984-85, when he totaled 17 goals in just 47 games, while tying for the team lead with 5 game winning goals. If you’ve noticed a theme here, this time around it’s in the form of 254 career goals in the minor leagues. He won an AHL MVP award in 1983-84 for Rochester, when he amassed 55 goals and 103 points in just 71 games.
A quick shot and sniper’s mentality obviously cannot overcome a small stature and bad timing. Mal Davis was certainly a star…in the AHL. Unfair to be sure.
Drafted in the 2nd round by the NY Islanders in1990, Chris Taylor is yet another player to put up consistent, top-level numbers at the AHL level, yet only managed 149 NHL games during his 16 year professional career in North America. A native of Stratford, Ont., Taylor has piled up 894 points in 988 games in the minors, yet is probably best known around the NHL for his brother Tim, who captained the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Taylor, who is still an active player for the Sabres affiliate in Rochester, seemed too slow to be anything more than an emergency depth call up for Buffalo. His minor league offensive prowess didn’t translate to the NHL level, where he became nothing more than a fourth line grinder.
Mark Mancari. Big Body. Bigger shot. Sexy hair.
I’ve seen players half his size play bigger, stronger on the puck and with more heart, which pretty much summarizes the former 2004 draft pick’s career thus far. His NHL grand totals are 36 games, 3 goals and 13 points. His AHL grand totals are 418 games, 151 goals and 360 points. This tells you that he is a man amongst boys in the “A”, and a man-sized boy in the NHL. I remember an interview Mike Robitaille gave to Mancari, after one particular Sabres game. He told Mark that it was up to him, that he had what it takes to play in the league, but he had to show it every night. He couldn’t take any nights, or shifts, off.
Guess what? He didn’t take Roby’s comments to heart. He is now a member of the Vancouver Canucks organization. Good luck cracking that lineup, kid.
There are so many more players where these guys come from, past, present and future. Names like Geordie Robertson, Claude Verret, Todd Simon, Domenic Pittis and Norm Milley come to mind. Lack of size. Slow afoot. Too soft. One-dimensional. Bad timing. Bad luck. No room on the NHL roster. Too much hair-care product. There are a myriad of reasons why some players seemingly can’t make that final jump to becoming an NHL regular. They all seem to do something well, but rarely do they do anything special. I felt that some of these players, however, deserved tribute for one reason or another. For all of their “failure”, they certainly have to be given credit for making it as far as they did. Most young players chosen on draft day are rarely ever heard from again. For every Tyler Myers, there is a Dave Fenyves. For every Dave Fenyves, there is an Artem Kruikov. There certainly will be more players like this coming through, and clogging, the pipeline in the years to come.
So, here’s looking at you, AHL legends and career minor leaguers. Because, without you guys, the NHL would be too cut and dried.
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