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Bucky Gleason: Pominville's bus provides better travel for Sabres than Pegula's charter

Jason Pominville has experienced hockey's climate shift over his 13 seasons in the NHL, a career that includes a five-year stint with the Wild stuffed between some of the best days in Sabres' history and some of the worst. Oh, how the landscape has changed in Buffalo since his rookie season.

Pominville scored one of the biggest goals in franchise history, a shorthanded tally best remembered in slow motion that lifted the Sabres over the Senators and into the conference finals in 2006. At the time, he was viewed as a naive, wide-eyed kid who was trying to help his team and stay in the lineup.

In truth, he was no child. He was 23, having spent the previous two seasons lighting up the American Hockey League. He had had 64 goals and 132 points over 144 games but failed to earn a roster spot with the Sabres. He started the 2005-06 with 19 goals in 18 games in Rochester before he was promoted.

In all, he played 236 games over three-plus AHL seasons before he became a full-time player in the NHL. You think he was eager to stick around once he arrived?

"Yeah, I remember," Pominville said over the weekend after the Sabres were humiliated in a 7-1 loss to the Stars. "I remember riding the buses."

It was along the highways connecting Maine to Manitoba and minor-league outposts in between that guys like Pominville played for peanuts while fantasizing about the NHL. With long bus rides and minuscule per diems was a message about sacrifice and patience, about development and discipline, about never taking the NHL for granted.

Pominville's teammates in Rochester included Sabres GM Jason Botterill and Americans coach Chris Taylor. At age 32, Taylor led the Amerks in scoring in 2004-05 because he understood the game from the neck up. He was more effective than younger teammates who were blessed from the neck down.

In the years that followed, every player who sustained success after playing in Rochester – Pominville, Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Paul Gaustad, Daniel Paille, Ryan Miller – said they were better for the experience. They learned from their mistakes and improved without the glare of the NHL spotlight. They experienced the grind.

Mostly, they grew up.

They showed up hungry and humble. They were surrounded by teammates who took similar paths, guys who understood playing in the NHL was a privilege, leaders who cared more about numbers in the standings than commas in their bank accounts and led the Sabres to back-to-back trips to the conference finals.

Certainly you remember Pominville, our fictional hockey-loving suburb in which No. 29 served two terms as mayor. He spent only one full season in Pegulaville, a town of gloom and doom after the Sabres were stripped to the studs in a quest to start from scratch. Tossed in the trash heap was a blueprint that showed how careers were built.

The Sabres' roster today is littered with players who are making a better living without making the same sacrifices. Evander Kane, on pace for a career year with free agency looming, never spent a day in the minors and has never appeared in a playoff game. The same is true for Zach Bogosian, the player who accompanied Kane from Winnipeg.

Sam Reinhart, a former second pick overall who has grossly underachieved, has played just three games in the minors. Rasmus Ristolainen played all of 34 games in the AHL while Zemgus Girgensons played only 61. Jack Eichel was ready for the NHL, but urgency was absent from his game this season. At 21, he's trying to learn how to become a leader in an unhealthy, perhaps toxic environment.

To be sure, Buffalo's roster could use yet another cleansing. Sabres fans can take comfort knowing the Amerks have the third-best winning percentage in the AHL this season, a sign they're grooming players who are learning how to win. The Sabres have too many players who either have been spoiled over overpaid.

Jordan Nolan in Los Angeles and Scott Wilson in Pittsburgh won Stanley Cups before arriving in Buffalo. Neither is blessed with extraordinary talent, but at least they're earning their keep. Nolan played 136 games in the minors. Wilson played 109 games in college and another 90 in the minors. They're not overly effective, but they play like they're hungry.

How many others could say the same? Not many. How many games are the Sabres going to win when Nolan and Wilson are leading them? Not many.

"You talk to Nolie or you talk to Willie, who have won Cups and been with players who had success in the league, it's the first thing they tell you – how hard they practiced and how hard they competed in practice," Pominville said. "And it's not one day. It's every day."

Reinhart in particular could have used a stint in Rochester. The Sabres should have put his career in his hands and made him prove he belonged rather than rushing him into the NHL before he was ready for the long haul. He scored 23 goals his first year, grew comfortable with his game and hasn't been the same.

Who knows? Maybe extended time in the AHL last year would have set him straight, boosted his confidence, reminded him to appreciate the NHL and ultimately helped his career. Now, on pace for careers lows of 13 goals and 26 points with 214 NHL games over three seasons on his resume, he would need to clear waivers for reassignment.

The Sabres didn't do Reinhart or anybody else any favors with the way they handled his development. He has become a cautionary tale about players who were given too much too soon while earning too little.

Here's hoping Casey Mittelstadt is handled with care. The last thing he needs is the Sabres stunting his development just because they need him. Buffalo isn't going anywhere. He'd be better off staying in college for at least another season while improving his strength, working on his game and maturing as a player and person.

The Sabres have been so bad for so long that you wonder if they lost sight of what's required to make the playoffs. Pominville, 35, is considerably closer to the end of his career than the beginning. He was judicious with his words, making sure he didn't offend his younger teammates, but he remembered.

Pominville nodded his head while being reminded of his early days, how older players showed up prepared to work and carried themselves like professionals, how younger guys followed their lead, how the view from a bus window drove home a message and contributed to a winning culture.

In fact, he lived it.

"It's been tough for myself and for different guys," Pominville said. "We have a younger team, a lot of younger players that we've been able to draft who have been able to come and play right away. It's a learning process. The youth is great, but we have to find a way to win more games."

 

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