Mika Noronen had a dressing cubicle to himself Monday, so at least he felt like one of the boys, if not exactly like part of the team. There have been times this season when Noronen was worse off than being the odd man out of the Buffalo Sabres goaltending plans. He was the odd man out of the locker room, a player without a nameplate living the drab, unfulfilling life of isolation.
The Forgotten Man thought back to training camp, recalled how the No. 1 job was advertised as up for grabs. And here he is five months later, never having had much of a preseason chance to prove himself, never having had the chance to do much of anything, the year ripped out of his career calendar while he toils in solitary confinement and prays for parole.
Finally the day fast approaches, March 9. The trade deadline. Let freedom ring.
"The next 10 days I've been really looking forward to and hopefully this thing is going to be over at that time and they're going to do some kind of move, either me or somebody else," Noronen said. "That's what I'm hoping for. We'll see what they're going to do."
Sellers outweigh buyers in the goaltending department as teams seek to bolster themselves for the hectic and demanding stretch run. Edmonton has yet to identify a No. 1 netminder. Vancouver's been looking for help. Ottawa could be in the market, the groin injury Dominik Hasek suffered in Turin having heightened the desire for a more dependable backup.
Those on the prowl have veteran options. Minnesota has dangled Dwayne Roloson. Phoenix could part with Curtis Joseph. A buyout might convince Ed Belfour to surrender his no-trade clause if Toronto continues to sputter and looks toward the future. At least three other goaltenders are believed to be available, diminishing the chance General Manager Darcy Regier can find a trade involving Noronen that meets his strict criteria.
If the Sabres consider themselves Stanley Cup contenders -- which is the way they should be thinking -- trading Marty Biron no longer meshes with their ambitions. Noronen's played in all of four games, the last a Dec. 2 loss to San Jose in which he yielded four goals on 11 shots. The Sabres should stick with Biron, the proven commodity, heading down a torturous stretch run and into the playoffs instead of inviting greater uncertainty.
To Noronen's regret, the same thinking likely holds true for other teams with postseason aspirations. Noronen's prolonged inactivity makes him a more sensible option for a club looking to rebuild instead of a team looking to contend. Maybe if he had agreed to a conditioning assignment in Rochester, chipped away some of the rust, re-established his value, teams would consider him capable of providing help.
"I've asked him on several occasions to go and play, more for just staying ready," coach Lindy Ruff said. "Instead of practicing here, go play. But that's happened in the past where players have chose not to go. I don't hold that against them. They almost feel that practicing at this level is better than playing at the American League level. I've seen a few American League games and it isn't near what it was last year. So there may be a case in point for that."
"It's tough for other teams to offer anything if they haven't seen me play," Noronen conceded. "But I've been in the AHL, I've seen it, I've done it, so what's the point? They know by now that I can play there and I can play in this league. From my point of view, I've played there three years and I'm not going back."
Here, there, anywhere, Noronen's ambivalent so long as whoever has him wants him and plans on using him. He can't bear the thought of the status quo remaining intact. He's an athlete, a competitor, 26 and approaching his prime. And he's long since tired of being along for the ride.
"If nothing happens I see my future being in Europe," he said, sounding saddened by the idea it might come to that.