For years, Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff pleaded with winger Thomas Vanek to become a complete player, holding up Detroit Red Wings superstar Pavel Datysuk as evidence. Ruff's demands remain the same, but his example has changed. He now points to none other than Daniel Paille.
One day after he was the best player on the ice in the season-opening victory over the Montreal Canadiens, Paille and his fiance were shopping at the Walden Galleria when a stranger stopped them to congratulate him on a terrific performance. He told Paille that he reminded him of his own son and praised him for his effort.
Apparently, hard work does work.
Paille has impressed his coach, the fans at the mall and anybody who appreciates Joe the Plumber with his two-way style that works on any level. It has become increasingly effective in the ever-evolving NHL, where parity has become so strong that many games this season will be determined by the team best completing the dirty jobs.
Exhibit A could be tonight's game against the Boston Bruins, which is expected to be a tight-checking matchup in HSBC Arena between two Northeast Division rivals. It's the first of four games over seven days for the Sabres, who visit Minnesota and Colorado before returning home Monday against Ottawa.
"It's always great to have a fast start," Paille said Monday after a 55-minute practice. "I'm happy with the way I'm playing right now, and the breaks are going our way. It's huge to start up like that. There are going to be highs and lows, but to have it going now helps me with my confidence. It feels great right now."
Buffalo is 4-0-1 for a variety of reasons. Vanek has been terrific, scoring seven goals in the five games. The defense has been superb. Ryan Miller led the league with a 1.30 goals-against average, and his .945 save percentage was second only to backup Patrick Lalime's .951 through the first five games.
Paille, perhaps more than any other player on the roster, has come to exemplify what the Sabres are trying to accomplish. He's is reliable on both ends, rarely gets caught out position, plays with intelligence and plays with toughness. His tireless effort has become common if not contagious.
"Danny's effort has been something you can all watch," Ruff said. "[Vanek's] effort on a couple goals is something other players can watch because it's a north-south effort. It isn't a stop, pull up and beat two or three guys. That game is almost gone."
Paille has no goals, three assists and a plus-2 rating, numbers that mean little in the big picture. He's been on their most effective penalty-killing unit this year. The Sabres believe the results will eventually show up on the score sheet, as they have for Vanek, if Paille continues putting forth the effort.
"Nobody's told him that he's supposed to get tired. He skates and skates and dogs the puck, and then he dogs the puck some more," fellow attack dog Adam Mair said. "He really epitomizes what we want as a hockey club. It's hard to play against someone like that. When you get everyone doing those things, that's when you really find success."
Ruff and General Manager Darcy Regier have been gushing over Paille since the start of the season. They're seeing returns from a conversation he had with the coaching staff and general manager last April, when they patted him on the back for scoring 19 goals and told him he needed to play with more aggression.
Paille thought the criticism was fair, the message clear. If he spent last season to build his confidence, he used the offseason to build his body. He adhered to strength-and-conditioning coach Doug McKenney's demanding program and returned stronger, faster, more mature, more aggressive, more complete.
"It's been a little bit of everything, I guess," he said. "They said in the year-end [meeting] that I wasn't physical enough. That was one of the reasons they drafted me. My conditioning and speed was always there. With me being a little stronger, it's been showing a little bit more. It pays off when I'm winning battles."
Ruff has been harping since the first day of training camp about playing better away from the puck. Detroit has excelled in that area for years, Datsyuk in particular. He had 97 points last season and was among the Red Wings' most dangerous offensive weapons, but he also won the Selke Trophy as the NHL's top defensive forward.
Henrik Zetterberg finished last season with 43 goals and 92 points and was a runner-up for the Selke. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs after the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup. They helped set Detroit apart in a tight league.
Ruff isn't asking for Datsyuk and Zetterberg's talent, but he wants his players matching their effort. Vanek has scored two short-handed goals, both the results of Paille's labor. Vanek has been getting plenty of attention for his play. Paille has been getting plenty of respect for his.
"You have to play that type of style," Paille said. "A lot more teams are winning that way, by having those types of players. If I could do all that and help out defensively, it's something I would be really happy with."
Sabres vs. Bruins
Faceoff: 7 p.m. in HSBC Arena
Radio: 550 AM
Last season: Tied, 4-4