BUFFALO – You can’t turn down a one-way contract, Mark Mancari said. No way. Not when you’ve been making around $50,000 most of your career in the minors.
So when the Vancouver Canucks guaranteed him $525,000 as free agency opened in 2011, the high-scoring winger left the Sabres organization after six seasons.
“You go. You don’t think too much about it,” Mancari said Tuesday inside the First Niagara Center prior to the Rochester Americans’ 3-1 win over the Hamilton Bulldogs. “You take it and you run.”
The 27-year-old enjoyed his one year away. As expected, he scored 30 goals for Vancouver’s AHL affiliate in Chicago. He also played six games with the Canucks.
But Mancari missed the comfort his original organization had offered. He developed into an AHL star under the Sabres, earning some frequent recalls. He appeared in a career-high 20 games in 2010-11 and skated regularly during the Sabres’ torrid late-season run to the playoffs, even playing in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal.
Mancari departed the Sabres just as he was finally establishing himself. He wanted to get back, and on July 6 he re-signed.
“It’s the comfort,” said Mancari, who was selected 207th overall in 2004. “From the day I turned pro I walked in here I saw (Sabres coach) Lindy Ruff, I saw (general manager) Darcy Regier, all the players in here, training staff. I mean, there’s things like that that become comfortable for you and your family.”
The memories of his first regular NHL duty late in 2010-11 played heavily, too.
“That had a lot to do with it,” Mancari said. “There were a lot of good players here on that team, and they showed confidence in me.”
Going back to his first run in Rochester from 2005-08, Mancari’s AHL play has always been strong, even elite. He’s averaged 30 goals and 65 points over the last four seasons, including a 32-goal, 64-point effort in only 56 games with Portland in 2010-11.
With two goals and five points in six games this season, Mancari looks as good as ever.
“He wants to be in Buffalo’s organization,” Amerks coach Ron Rolston said. “He offers us leadership, experience. He really just does a good job of settling everybody down. He’s a good communicator. And then offensively he’s a threat out there.”
But Mancari’s scoring hasn’t reached the big leagues. He has only three goals and 13 points in 42 NHL games.
“I’m known to score goals,” Mancari said. “I wasn’t able to. It wasn’t for the lack of shooting. In my mind, maybe it was just the one step I was behind. That’s kind of how I looked at it. I wasn’t disappointed in my production, just my goal scoring.”
Slow foot speed has long been the knock on Mancari. That’s why he dropped 20 pounds during the summer and is down to 210, his lowest weight since he was 16 years old.
“I feel pretty comfortable with my hands and my shot and my abilities to read the plays,” Mancari said. “There’s just a lot of really fast players up there. I think that’s what’s held me back.”
Mancari said he had reached a crossroads in his career and needed to make a decision.
“Do you want to be a guy that develops players, or do you want to make the next level?” he said. “I’ve always wanted to make the next level, but I just kind of had the realization that what I was doing wasn’t working. I changed my goals. I’m still trying to get comfortable where I am right now.”
Does Mancari feel faster?
“I guess the best term is ‘comfortable,’” he said. “I do feel a lot better. It’s taken a little adjustment because you’ve played at such a weight. But the last few games I’ve felt real good.”
Mancari’s enjoying his second run with the Amerks much more than his first, when the Sabres split the affiliation with the Florida Panthers. Back then, the Sabres were fighting with Rochester’s ownership. Some players didn’t receive the proper ice time, either.
Everything was a mess.
The Sabres switched to a single affiliation with Portland before Sabres owner Terry Pegula purchased the Amerks last year.
“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, you were frustrated being there.’ I think a lot of guys were,” Mancari said about Rochester. “When you have a dual affiliation, everything’s just cut down the middle. Some guys that shouldn’t be playing were playing and so forth. It was just a tough situation for everybody.
“Since Terry’s taken over and done some tremendous things there, it’s done a U-turn. It’s an amazing place to be.”
But it’s not the place Mancari wants to be forever. He’s hopeful the Sabres take a long look at him whenever the NHL lockout ends.
“I’m playing to get a call-up. It’s my dream,” Mancari said. “This is where I want to be. I’m hopefully going to do everything I can to get back here.”
Notes: Amerks goalie David Leggio enjoyed a nice bounce-back game Tuesday. The Williamsville native, who began the night sporting a 3.97 goals-against average, made 36 saves. … With his first goal and another assist, Amerks center Cody Hodgson already has nine points in six games. Defenseman T.J. Brennan recorded his fourth goal and eighth point. Winger Marcus Foligno also notched his ninth point. … Amerks winger Corey Tropp, who’s likely out for the season, must wait for his MCL to heal before he undergoes ACL surgery. … The Amerks announced an attendance of 10,936 fans. The game was recently moved from the Blue Cross War Memorial because of the lockout.