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VHL 30 in 30 #28: Buffalo Bills

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Buffalo Bills

Over the first thirty VHL seasons, four franchises made the playoffs seven seasons in a row. Three of them won the cup at least once during those runs. Three straight finals has also been a rare occurrence, being accomplished six times, with five of those teams winning at least once championship during that time. This story is of course about the exception. The New York Americans, the only team in the league with just one Continental Cup, made the playoffs seven straight times in the third decade (and now a league record eighth in Season 31) and strung together a record four straight finals appearances from Seasons 25 to 28. Those are remarkable feats without a doubt but the Americans made even more history: they didn't win a single Victory or Continental Cup during that whole stretch. Was it bad luck, is it a curse, or were there some bad decisions? It's really hard to tell but New York has created a most interesting storyline over the past generation of the VHL.

New York GM Sam Helberg ended his first managerial stint after just two seasons, ending with a disappointing seven-game loss in the first round of the Season 18 playoffs to the Calgary Wranglers. He and his player Geno Esposito soon left the franchise as it went back into a rebuild but returned through free agency in Season 22. This would be Esposito's last season in the VHL as he was the first sacrifice made by Helberg's return to GMing, replacing his old replacement James Assayag. At the time, the Americans were still feeling the effects of Helberg's first tenure and were mired in a four-season playoff drought. The team still lacked a franchise goaltender and that is who Helberg brought in as his new client with the price being Esposito, with Benjamin Glover joining the organisation at the Season 22 trade deadline. The playoff drought would be extended by another season prior to Glover actually joining the team and beginning to write VHL history.

Expectations were low for New York without a doubt. The team had some quality players on the team, including Jukka Hakkinen, Keon Henderson, Japinder Singh, Jaroslav Oslig, Jake Steen, but many of them left through free agency, retirement, or trade. The Americans seemed intent on restarting the rebuild, but Helberg never quite started afresh, letting some of Assayag's acquisitions (and even Hakkinen, who Helberg had drafted during his first stint) remain on board and play out their careers with New York. In Season 24, the team drafted Daniel Braxton and Jarppi Leppala in the first round, two players who would become cornerstones of the team's future success (or failure). Alongside the veterans of the team, as well as rookie Glover and promising two-way pivot Dustin McKullen, the Americans managed to sneak into the playoffs that season thanks to the continued rebuild in Seattle and the fall of Calgary, but were ousted in five games by the heavily-favoured Toronto Legion. It was seen as a positive for the long-struggling franchise, but few outside New York saw them on the brink of a (almost) dynasty.

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Benjamin Glover and Daniel Braxton became synonymous with New York

"When I first joined we were just coming out of a largely extended rebuild, unsure of where we'd end up. By season start our goal was to make the playoffs. When the year came to an end I knew our team had something special. As we progressed in years our expectations were always to take home a championship. Each and every member was expected to put in their time to be the best player they could. In return, we expected Streetlight to do his job and acquire the assets we needed to come out on top. In the end I feel like he did his job perfectly, but some of the players really let him, and us, down. Every season we did the best we could, and every season it was just shy of good enough." - Daniel Braxton

"I had very high expectations which included winning at least one Continental Cup. Knowing that we'd have Benjamin Glover in net gave me a lot of hope after the goaltending situation the team had previously been in. By his third season, Glover was the second best goalie in the league. Since then, he was the best, and there was really no debating that, whatever the stats said. We were able to acquire some good picks in dealing Erik Haakonsson and Jake Steen, so I thought we'd we able to add good players around him. I thought we had a healthy mix of veterans, in players like Jukka Hakkinen, Keon Henderson, and Ignatius Feltersnatch, and youngsters such as Glover, Daniel Braxton, Dustin McKullen, Jarppi Leppala, and others. And I thought we were going to have Japinder Singh returning to us in Season 25, which I think would have been a huge boost. I really thought we'd be able to sustain a high level of competition for several seasons, which we did, but we were never quite able to be the top team. That was really a letdown." - Sam Helberg

"The expectations seemed to be that we were a team with the potential to win a cup and we went into the season with that mentality. Everyone had a role and anything less than a finals appearance would have been a disappointment for us. In a word, the expectations were high. Basically, the overall mood of the locker room seemed to drop more and more every year. We still believed that we were a contending team but with every cup appearance and every cup loss it started to take its toll on the players." - Jason White

Season 25 would be the last season of the team's heart and soul and future Hall of Famer Jukka Hakkinen. Draft additions included two more eventual mainstays in Jason White and Dom Mazzetti and in free agency, the Americans managed to land talented forward and former cup winner Ignatius Feltersnatch. However, Helberg was cautious with where to take the team from there. On paper, they still weren't expected to do much against the veteran dynasties in Toronto and Davos. The expectations were proven half wrong as New York did in fact take the North American crown in the regular season and in the playoffs with a sweep of the aging Legion, but the star-studded Dynamo proved to be too much and the Americans went down in five again. It was no reason to be concerned at this point as to many, New York was now the obvious team of the near future.

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Vasteras historically had as much difficulty as New York, but not against them

The ensuing season could have been the one without a doubt. Despite the loss of Hakkinen, Helberg added veterans Adam Schultz and Kristian Carlsson, while core players like Glover and Braxton had developed into much bigger impact players by Season 26. It is hard to criticise anything the team did this season though, as after the off-season and through the first half of the season, New York was the team to beat. Davos and Toronto had fallen off the contending map, big rivals Seattle were still a step behind and the Vasteras Iron Eagles were seen by many as being snake-bitten more than the Americans franchise. Nevertheless, the two teams established themselves as the top two teams in the league after having been in the metaphorical dump just 3-4 seasons prior and eventually came down to the expected showdown in the finals. New York failed to win a game in the first three and were yet again eliminated in five. It was the first true disappointment the Americans experienced, but there was not much else they could have done, as Vasteras simply had a few more stars, just like Davos the season prior. For New York though, there was still a next season to look forward to.

"I tried to build a team that could compete for an extended period of time. Maybe I should have tried to lessen our window of competition by a season or two on either end. Jukka Hakkinen spent his whole career with the Americans, and maybe that was a mistake. Maybe I should have traded him. But I knew we had a chance in Season 25, and even though he'd have to retire after that season, I wanted to go for it. I wasn't going to jeopardize our future for it, though. Maybe I should have. Maybe I should have traded a first round pick or two to add some more firepower in Season 25, and we'd have won a cup right there. I don't regret anything about a trade I did or didn't make. I tried to make deals. I tried to make the trade for Phil Gerrard that Vasteras got instead. I tried to get Ansgar Snijider. I was willing to give up first round picks." - Sam Helberg

It would be one of the team's most underwhelming regular seasons of the post-season streak though, as with some key retirements and no big trades to bring in replacements, the Americans stumbled out of the gate and fell behind their arch-nemesis in Seattle and the newly-risen powers in Helsinki and Riga. There was no way New York couldn't have gotten into the playoffs, but they didn't seem to have much of a chance against the Bears in the conference finals. It all changed at the trade deadline when Helberg gave up his first first-round pick of his second tenure without return, acquiring veteran Lars Intranquilo and depth winger Alvin Yu to bolster both the team's depth and offence. The Americans didn't all of a sudden become a scoring machine, but it was enough for them to upset Seattle in seven games and go up two games to none in the finals. Despite Season 26 seemingly having a better roster, going into Game 3 of the finals, it appeared Season 27 was where it was all going to click. Fate, however, had completely different plans for New York. They were very much shut down for the rest of the series and became the first team in VHL history to fail to win after a 2-0 lead in the finals, losing four straight games to the high-scoring Helsinki Titans, a team involved in the Intranquilo trade as well, and became the first team ever to lose in three straight finals attempts.

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Lars Intranquilo was one of many key rentals during the run

Yet again though, Helberg and the Americans persevered. The old guard was going away further, and just like Davos and Vasteras, Helsinki, a team quickly built on the remains of the previous generation, faded away into a rebuild while New York remained among the league's elite. Season 27 had finally revealed a definite weakness in the team: lack of offence, which Helberg sought to patch up in the following off-season to prepare for the big battle against Seattle. Both teams sought and picked up assets from the selling Titans and Reign and there was a definite two-horse race in the league. The implementation of playoff cross-over allowed the Americans and Bears to avoid each other until the finals, which they reached with some difficulty against underdogs Davos and Calgary, but nevertheless didn't flake out after regular seasons where they led the league with the same amount of points at 115. Braxton and Glover were the top defenceman and goaltender in the league, respectively, the additions of Pavel Koradek, Rauno Pajari, and Gunnar Axelson meshed well with the team and the big series had huge expectations. Tied after four, all signs were pointing towards a Game 7 nail-biter, but Seattle would have none of it. They won the cup in the next two games and the Americans were left devastated again.

"As is a majority of the cases, free agents tend to sign where they feel they have the strongest chance of winning, and where they would make the most difference. I signed in New York because, after countless seasons of falling short, they deserved to have it all pay off. I wanted to make a difference, I wanted to be the piece they needed to succeed, and I wanted, and partially expected New York to win the cup, not because of the addition of me, but because they needed a break. It was (or should have been) their time to come out on top." - Leeroy Jenkins

At a certain point, Helberg's patience was up and in Season 29 rumour on the block was that the long-time GM was soon following his Seattle rival Greg Harbinson and stepping down. For yet another season, Helberg's long-term planning allowed New York to stay in the upper echelon of the league but they continued to be second-best. Leeroy Jenkins, a man with four championships, was signed from Seattle in Season 29 and another star forward in Tukka Reikkinen was traded for. The original core had changed in a major way, there was no more McKullen, Leppala, White, or Henderson, and draft picks were now flying around in a bigger way than ever as the Americans were desperate to win. However, despite another impressive line-up, they were slow out of the gate and this time had no trade deadline deal set up to push them into the finals. New York didn't even make it to the final as they fell to the huge pre-season underdogs from Toronto in six and thus ended Helberg's GM reign.

Talks of a rebuild kickstarted reminiscing on the recent past for Americans fans and outsiders. New York was a strong team and had some of the greatest player to ever play the game suit up for them over a five-season period. Prominent questions were: what went wrong? and when was New York's best chance and did they even have one? Should they have made a bigger push when Jukka Hakkinen was still around? Was meeting up with a team with similarly awful playoff history in Vasteras supposed to be the key to success? Did the Americans ice their best lineups in Seasons 28 or 29 or was their 2-0 lead against Helsinki the best god-given opportunity they could have had?

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Was Jukka Hakkinen in New York at the wrong time?

"I would probably dedicate their finest moment to Season 27. They managed to get quite far in the playoffs, and sure, they only won 2 out of 4 in the finals, but it was a great attempt. What they really lacked that season was offensive firepower. Their defence was, without a doubt, the best in the league, and Glover was very close to his prime, but they had zero genuine stars up front, with Keon Henderson being the closest they got to one. On the other side of things, we (Helsinki), had an incredible forward core of myself, Koradek and Bora, and as it has been proven time and time again, offence wins championships." - Leeroy Jenkins

"Without a doubt I think we were favorites to win several seasons: hell the predictions show that pretty clearly. As far as what season was our finest, personally, I'd say the last season I was there, season 28. We were neck and neck with the Bears the entire season but just couldn't close out the finals (which seemed to be our common trend). We had all the pieces but I guess they just wanted it more." - Jason White

"I believe the best chance we had was the first year we had playoff crossover, when we faced the Bears in the finals. That was one of two times we made it six games into the last series, but to me that was easily our best chance. With a little luck those games could have gone our way, and history would forever be changed." - Daniel Braxton

That could have been a bigger debate but the past started to be overlooked again when under new GM Ryan Power, the Americans simply refused to die. In Season 30 they ousted the defending champions from Toronto to stay in the playoffs for a seventh consecutive seasons, despite losing lots of big names like Jenkins, Braxton, and Pajari. With such an accomplishment in a season where they were meant to be rebuilding, hope remained alive in New York and going into Season 31, Power sent a clear message by making moves with the hopes of winning that elusive championship. Despite the improvement of the Riga Reign and steady continuation by the Calgary Wranglers, the Americans opted to give it one more shot, as long as the future remained in tact. That it did and as we speak, New York is in the middle of an exciting North American final against Calgary, which they started with a shocking, for some, two wins in a row. However, they're still not considered the favourites to win which is a tag which appears to avoid the Americans over the course of their whole contending era.

"I don't believe that they were ever really considered the 'favourites' per say. They were frequently up there in the top teams in the league, like in 27 or even 30, but there was always a piece or two missing. We had a very small roster in Season 30, and being limited to 5 forwards and 3 defensemen every game was very tough. It takes a toll on you for sure, and I think that's where New York went wrong that year." - Leeroy Jenkins

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The great Leeroy Jenkins got it done everywhere he went except New York

"That is a good question. We never did win the Victory Cup during all these seasons, so were we ever the favourites in the playoffs? It's hard to say, because everything seems so random. You look at Toronto's win in Season 29 and say depth is key. Now look back to Season 25 when we faced Davos in the finals; we had depth similar to Toronto, while Davos was extremely lacking in that regard. Sure, they had Daisuke Kanou in net against a second-year Benjamin Glover, but Alexander Labatte was just a sophomore in Season 29. You build your team one way, and it doesn't work, so you make adjustments, and then you lose to the very thing that didn't work for you before. It's frustrating. We never had a bunch of great scorers, and I've learned that defense is not what wins you championships in the VHL. Looking back with a different mindset, I don't know if I can say we were ever the favourites. But you don't have to be the favourites to win." - Sam Helberg

If the Season 31 run proves to be successful, it will take some merit away from New York “perennial failure” tag. However, it won't re-write those four straight finals losses and the failure to win more than six games in a single post-season. It will not answer the questions about very talented rosters not getting a few extra wins and the reasons behind it. After all, why did the Americans not win at least once and what was their greatest downfall?

"Honestly, I've been asking myself that for several seasons now and I'm not sure of an exact answer. On paper we seemed prime to take the cup several times but it seems like we were just destined to only come so close. I think if I had to come up with an answer it would be that we were always missing just the last little bit of drive. Personally I was at fault for this a lot. I can't help but wonder if we had gotten those extra few TPE each how much history would have been different for NY." - Jason White

"I believe we always lacked a serious competing offense. We've never needed a goaltender during my time here, Glover did an amazing job. On defense I've always had a quality partner next to me to have a strong defensive presence. Up front though, was a different story. After we lost Hakkinen and Feltersnatch we never managed to replace them until Reikkinen came along. We never had the super star forward we needed to propel ourselves to victory. A large part of the offensive burden was placed on my shoulders, and I'm 100% certain that's the reason I was able to win four Labatte trophies in a row. With a stronger forward core I'm positive I'd have had much less personal success, but would definitely have had much more team success." - Daniel Braxton

"My biggest regret would have to be taking Jason White in the Season 25 draft instead of Tukka Reikkinen. I had wanted another center, because at the time we didn't have Ignatius Feltersnatch yet. I thought White looked like a good prospect, and he came with high recommendation from Dustin McKullen, who I trusted very much. I guess my biggest regret should actually be trusting McKullen, because he led me astray with the endorsement and then also disappeared himself. As for White, his progression was never steady, which was a big disappointment." - Sam Helberg

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Jason White was better in one season in Toronto than during his whole time in New York

Regardless, history has been made and for all the issues with winning a cup, the New York Americans have produced quality hockey for a very impressive span of seasons in VHL terms. They created a ton of storylines and activity with their rivalry with the Bears and just with their play in general. They've produced two almost definite Hall of Famers in Daniel Braxton and Benjamin Glover and were at times home for many others, such as Hakkinen, Jenkins, Koradek, Reikkinen, and Schultz. No matter the end result, consistency is something hard to come by in the VHL and New York has produced that for almost a decade and quite possibly for more seasons to come, as long as Power continues what he started in his first two seasons in charge. In terms of pure statistics, the Americans have themselves a dynasty and a top three or five one in VHL history. How a lack of championship plays into that is each individual's opinion but they have had an impressive run nonetheless and deserve credit where credit is due.

"If you are going to rank teams based on the number of championships they won, New York would be behind everyone but Riga. Over the past six seasons, six different teams have won the cup. Does that mean that New York was worse than Vasteras or Helsinki during that time? Toronto has made the playoffs just once since we swept them in Season 25, but they made their trip count. I knew with the team that I had that we could make it to the finals many times, as we did, and I thought things would go our way at least once. So far, that hasn't happened. To answer the question, though, I'd have to say that the only team better than us during this past generation was the Seattle Bears. It's hard to say that, because they were our rivals, but they were the only team consistently making the playoffs alongside us during the prime of the generation. Sure, New York didn't win a championship, but we had other success. And if you replay all those seasons, they could very well come away with multiple cups." - Sam Helberg

"It's tough to rank teams just like that. Don't get me wrong, every team I've played for, I absolutely loved. They all had great locker rooms, and great characters in them. Now, I don't want to throw New York under the bus by any means, but at the same time, it's difficult to place them anywhere other than last on my list, simply because they were the only ones that I hadn't won a cup with. We had a decent regular season, but we only made the playoffs because of the newly implanted crossover, and we fell short in the playoffs as well, which was disappointing to say the least." - Leeroy Jenkins

The New York Americans may have shaped the past VHL decade more than any other team, thought it may have been a mixture of them and Seattle against Davos and Toronto. They were a bizarre team, but an interesting one to follow from the outside looking in. New York is now long overdue for a Continental Cup but even if it takes some more time for them to get it, you can now almost certainly expect the Americans to be involved in the league on a positive proactive level, fully ridding themselves of their early history and the real failure that encompassed it.

End of Part 28
Special thanks to Sam Helberg, Daniel Braxton, Jason White, and Leeroy Jenkins

 

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