PORTLAND, ME (LGS) — Starting with the 2008-09 hockey season, the Buffalo Sabres sent their top prospects to a city other than Rochester, NY, for the first time in almost three decades. Considering that many players were on one of the worst teams in Rochester Americans history, one that won a total of 24 games, Sabres brass wanted their prospects to get the opportunity to experience a winning atmosphere in Portland.
And win is what the Portland Pirates have done. The Pirates have won nine of their first 11 games, good for a 9-1-1-0 record, which puts them atop the Atlantic Division with 19 points.
Leading the way offensively is Mark Mancari, a fourth-year pro from London, Ontario. Mancari kicked off the year with an astounding five-point night (3g, 2a) against the Manchester Monarchs and never looked back. In 11 games, he has nine goals and 12 assists. He was named the Reebok Player of the Week for the period ending November 8 in which he netted four goals and four assists in three games.
"I've gotten off to a great start," Mancari said via a phone interview with LetsGoSabres.com. "I didn't really know what to expect coming into this year. We're in a new city, a new team with new players and coaching staff.
"My number one goal was to start the year in Buffalo. When that didn't happen I figured the only thing I could do was come down here and do whatever I could do to turn heads in Buffalo."
The 6'4 Mancari has seen action in only three NHL games during his career despite the offensive numbers he has put up in the minors. Last year "Manny" led the Americans in scoring with 57 points and tied for the lead in goals with 21.
"It's frustrating because I want to be in the NHL. There have been chances when I could have gone up, but Buffalo decided to go in a different direction at that time. I can't get down on myself about it though because it's out of my hands."
Mancari re-signed with the Sabres this past offseason. It was unclear what would be in his future due to the abundance of forwards in Buffalo.
"Buffalo owned my rights, and they're certainly not just going to let a player go. I thought I did enough for them to offer me a contract. I wanted to come to camp in the best shape I could be in and play a solid two-way game.
"You know, right now there is a logjam and that hurts me, unfortunately. There are a couple of guys down here right now, but I can't get down on myself.
"All I can do is concentrate on my game, and if I'm happy with that that's all I can do. They'll fill their roster with who they deem necessary, but I hope to get to the NHL however I can."
Teamed with Kennedy, Gerbe
Helping contribute to his great start is the fact that he was skating alongside top prospects Tim Kennedy and Nathan Gerbe.
"Both of those guys are so good with the puck. They're creative and fast skaters which helps them create space on the ice. During the first game, they were both pushing me to move faster and put myself in different situations on the ice."
Since opening night, coach Kevin Dineen has mixed the lines up, and Mancari is now paired with Mathieu Darche and Kennedy.
"Coach wanted to level the lines a bit. Darche has been around a long time, and we're still finding a way to get points. It's good."
Mancari spoke very highly of the youngster Gerbe. The Boston College product, who scored many highlight reel goals at the Frozen Four last year, is off to a fast start in the pro game as well.
"He's such a fast skater," Mancari said. "He's shifty too. He creates a lot of room for himself with his speed. He's got a great shot, and he's strong on his feet. It's really hard to push him off of the puck.
"It seems like he can put his shot wherever he wants to."
"He uses a really long stick for someone his size," he said of Gerbe, who is listed at 5'6. "His stick is almost the same size as mine," added Mancari.
"Every night it's something new with him. He finds a way to get things done. You'll see a pass intended for him, and you'll think he'll never get it and the next thing you know it's on his stick. All of that makes him a good player."
The Pirates as a whole are playing great hockey, and that's what Mancari is most proud of.
"I think it's been great. There are a bunch of fresh faces here, and it's a fresh start for us as a team. Everyone is buying into the systems that coach Dineen and (Eric) Weinrich have put into place.
"With so many new guys we had to pretty much learn everything from scratch. Both coaches have been extremely patient with everyone to get us all onto the same page."
'A good change'
For the first time since 1979, the Sabres are sending their prospects to a city other than Rochester. The reasons for the split have been well documented, and it was difficult for the players to concentrate on hockey during the tumultuous season of 2007-08.
"It definitely made it hard to come to the arena. We knew that the media was going to be in the room asking about the affiliation and money problems. That coupled with the losing made it tough on the guys.
"It's been nice to come to the rink this year. Everyone is enjoying themselves, and it's great to come in and talk about the win the night before and not the financial stuff. A lot of guys from last year's team have noticed it as well, and it is a good change."
Mancari said that despite his hectic schedule, he still manages to check in on the Amerks from time to time.
"I take the odd look to see how they're doing. I know they're struggling right now, but I have a lot of good friends on that team. I wish them all the best."
Perhaps if Mancari keeps up his torrid play it will be his Portland teammates wishing him the best as he leaves to go to the airport to catch a plane that takes him back to the NHL.