For a 6-foot-2, 200-pound man, Dmitri Kalinin is easy to miss.
He doesn't score. He doesn't fight. He does nothing to make himself the center of attention.
"When you start to notice him on the ice," Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said, "you start to notice mistakes."
The rookie defenseman goes unnoticed most nights -- for an average of 20 minutes a game. He patrols the Sabres' zone quietly and efficiently, doing nothing more than blocking those shots that need to be blocked, hitting those forwards that need to be hit and clearing those pucks that need to be cleared. It's not a job that brings fame, or even infamy, but it's a job that has to be done -- and Kalinin is developing into one of the most reliable lunch-pail defensemen in the NHL.
"For a first-year performer, he's had a heck of a year so far," Ruff said. "There's not a lot of nights where you have to go over positioning or his competitive nature."
Ruff took a chance when he benched Kalinin against Tampa Bay on Feb. 1. Kalinin's nose had been losing contact with the grindstone, but he was hardly the only Sabre struggling at that point.
Still, Ruff sat Kalinin in the hope that the 20-year-old would benefit from a one-game "timeout."
"I had a couple of bad games before I got benched, so I was kind of thinking about it, and I realized that I've got to play better than I did before," Kalinin said.
It may sound simplistic, but that's the whole idea. Since his return to the lineup, Kalinin has reverted to the solid, basic style of play that kept him out of Rochester in the first half of the season.
"I just tried to keep it simple: shoot the puck out (of the defensive zone) and make the simple plays," he said.
In the Sabres' 2-1 overtime victory against the New York Islanders on Wednesday night, Kalinin blocked a shot, recorded a takeaway and had an assist on Maxim Afinogenov's game-winner -- not a night to tax statisticians, but exactly the
kind of quietly effective performance Ruff wants out of Kalinin.
"I think his play had gotten a little bit sloppy and individual mistakes were starting to hurt him. But that was more of trying to do too much than trying to do too little, and that's the only thing that was hurting him," Ruff said. "Move the puck, be ready to join, but you don't have to do it yourself. I think one time (Wednesday night) he was going to try to beat two guys in the neutral zone again, and those are the things I'd like him to stay away from."
Youthful exuberance aside, Kalinin will never be mistaken for a selfish player.
"In the last game I played more defensively, and that's probably the key when we win. It's not only me -- everybody played good defense," he said.
The unlikely line of Chris Gratton, Doug Gilmour and Dave Andreychuk might be together awhile. The trio has skated together in both post-All-Star contests, combining for a plus-5 rating against the New York Rangers on Tuesday and registering 10 shots on Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro on Wednesday.
In putting the line together, Ruff had to reassign 18-year veteran left winger Andreychuk to the right side. Andreychuk's move accommodates Gilmour's change from center to left wing, which has been in effect through much of this season.
"It's a little different. I've got to keep my mind on it defensively, more than offensively," Andreychuk said. "I find myself drifting over to the other side going back into the defensive zone."
Still, Andreychuk -- who has 1,196 career points -- said he's glad to adjust if it means playing with 6-foot-3 center Gratton and Gilmour, who has 1,325 career points.
"We seem to have everything on this line," Andreychuk said.
The two brawls between Buffalo and the Islanders on Wednesday drew smiles from both Ruff and Isles coach Butch Goring.
"I call those things hockey," Goring said Wednesday of the free-for-alls, which resulted in 18 of the game's 31 penalties. "That's a lot of fun."
"That was kind of 'old time hockey' right there," said Ruff, who racked up 1,264 penalty minutes in his 14-year career. "There's a lot of entertainment value in our games, and that doesn't hurt. That's good old Western League hockey."
J.P. Dumont missed Thursday's practice because of flu-like symptoms. . . . Curtis Brown skated and said his back felt fine except for a little stiffness. He was to receive a treatment Thursday afternoon, and said he feels almost ready to play. . . . The Islanders became the second straight team to score on the Sabres on the power play Wednesday; the Sabres hadn't allowed a power-play tally from Jan. 11 until Tuesday, when the Rangers' Mark Messier broke their streak.