Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
Of all the players mired in the muck that was the Buffalo Sabres last two seasons, defenseman Mark Pysyk was the one who got crapped on the most. But with that over and fading into memory, it's time for him to take his place in the Sabres top-six defense corps.
When it comes to Pysyk and how he'd been approaching his time in Rochester despite having more to offer than half the d-men that have paraded through Buffalo the last two years, I keep hearing the words of long-time Amerks broadcaster, Don Stevens. Said Stevens of Pysyk, "He's just glad to be playing the game of hockey, which is the kind of player you want. He wants to be playing. I think he's smart enough to know that he has a long career ahead of him and that he can settle in for the long haul."
The "long-haul" begins this season. Finally.
It's safe to say that almost every Sabres fan thought Pysyk would be in the lineup last season, but he was a caught up in a crude game that included numbers, waivers, a preseason injury and an organizational focus on the long-term. In addition there was drama surrounding 19 yr. old defenseman Nikita Zadorov that included a tug of war between the Zadorov camp, the Canadian Hockey League and the KHL which would also affect Pysyk's status with the club.
Pysyk was his usual steady self throughout 2014 training camp and into the preseason. Buffalo GM Tim Murray had added a couple of veteran defenseman in Andrej Meszaros and Andre Benoit to the defense corps in the off season making it rather crowded. Then, unfortunately for Pysyk, he suffered an upper body injury less than a minute into the Sabres second preseason game vs. the Carolina Hurricanes.
The shoulder injury would shelve him until mid-October and when he returned, because he didn't need to clear waivers, the Sabres sent him to Rochester. He was with the Americans until December when he finally got the call to Buffalo. “I wasn’t thinking I was going to make it, but I was thinking I was going to do everything I could to make it,” said Pysyk after his Sabres season debut. “Then with the injury, it was all over and I knew I was headed back to Rochester. After that, I was just focused on playing there.”
Pysyk played four games for the Sabres in December. He scored a goal, had an even plus/minus rating while averaging over 18 minutes of ice time. Then it was back to Rochester.
Former Buffalo head coach Ted Nolan summed up the organizational thought process on Pysyk prior to his first game at Boston, “I’m a big Mark Pysyk fan,” said Nolan before the game. “It’s just circumstances right now, and we’ll see what happens in the future. He’s a solid player, a solid kid. He’s biding his time and doing what needs to be done in order to be here permanently. This kid has potential to be one of the leaders of this organization for many years to come."
The drama that surrounded Zadorov at the start of the season didn't help matters either. If you recall, he was a healthy scratch through the first six games and the Sabres wanted to send him back to his junior club. They'd have preferred to send him to Rochester, but because of the NHL/CHL agreement, the AHL was not an option. The KHL team that held his rights, however would not release him to the London Knights. And so he sat in limbo, taking up a roster spot that might have been (should have been,) Pysyk's.
It was a conundrum that handcuffed the organization the entire season and one that kept Pysyk in Rochester save for seven games he played with the big club. On a side note, there will be no drama any more with Zadorov as he was sent to Colorado as a part of the Ryan O'Reilly trade.
Things just kept getting weirder when it came to Pysyk's 2014-15 season. The Sabres were dead last in the league and hell-bent to stay there so he played for the Amerks as their No. 1 defenseman and then on February 28th he collapsed while playing a pick-up basketball game. No one knew what had caused it and he was expected to be out for the remainder of the season, but he was cleared to play for the final three-game weekend of the season.
"I've been to enough doctors hopefully for the rest of my life," said Pysyk after returning to the ice that week. "They did tests of my heart, on my head, nothing."
Said Amerks head coach Chadd Cassidy, "He went through all the testing and all the protocols that we needed to feel comfortable. He's been pushing real hard to get back into the lineup and he wants to play badly so we're going to give him a shot as long as he's ready to go on Friday night." Pysyk ended up playing in all three games logging team-high minutes in each of them. Although he could have shut it down for the season, he said he wanted to test himself. "I don't want to sit around all the summer months waiting to get into the first game and being unsure of myself in that sense," he said at the time. "It's good to get back on the ice again."
Pysyk has had a real strong camp thus far (no surprises there) and logged over 20 minutes of ice time for the Sabres first preseason game at Minnesota and (no surprises again) he finished the game with a plus-1 rating in Buffalo's 3-2 victory.
Last night he kicked it up a notch (or three) with a first star performance at Toronto. He had two assists, tallied the game winner on the power play with less than five minutes left in the game logging just over 19 minutes of ice-time.
Had the Sabres not signed Cody Franson this off season, it's probable that Pysyk would have been top-four but for now, he looks to be a #4/5 to at least start the year. Which is good in that the team can continue to develop him further while allowing him to gain confidence offensively.
One of the things GM Tim Murray had wanted Pysyk to work on was jumping into the play more. Everyone in the organization knows how smart and steady the 23 yr. old Pysyk is in the defensive zone, but Murray saw plenty of untapped offensive potential. Back in December, Pysyk flashed some of that when he took a neutral zone turnover and went to the net converting a rebound on the other side for a real nice goal at Ottawa. Last night we saw more of that.
"[Pysyk] played a real good game for us," said new head coach Dan Bylsma, "[he was] real responsible and good defensively but also we saw him jump up [into the rush] throughout the game."
It's another aspect for Pysyk to work on and he'll finally have the opportunity to do so at the NHL level.