GREENSBORO, N.C. -- It all came so quickly and so easily for Mike Wilson.
The Buffalo Sabres defenseman was called up from the minors in November 1995, in his first year as a professional, and he soon became one of the more dependable players at his position. Wilson was one of the leaders on the Sabres in plus/minus (plus-13). He and defense partner Darryl Shannon were often out on the ice in the final moments when Buffalo was involved in a close game.
Since then, however, Wilson has learned the hard way that this NHL stuff isn't as easy as it looks.
"I think my first year everything seemed to be going right for me," he said. "I think maybe you could say I got a little complacent in my second year, a little comfortable. You can't do that. Even the top players can't do that. I have to go out and play every night."
Wilson's production slid from 12 points in 58 games as a rookie to 11 points in 77 games as a sophomore, and his plus/minus rating stayed the same despite playing for a team with a much better record. He even was scratched from the lineup a few times, something that never happened in 1995-96. This season, Wilson has one assist in 11 games and is a minus-1. He sat out the Phoenix game, a 6-1 loss on Sunday night. The Sabres play the Carolina Hurricanes here Friday night.
"Last year, I had to work for everything I got, and this year is the same way," he said.
Wilson is one of the major projects of assistant coach Mike Ramsey, who has worked with him frequently. Ramsey took a look at Wilson and realized that the Brampton, Ont., native had many of the skills required of a top NHL defenseman.
"Obviously his strengths are his size, his reach, his skating ability -- for a big man he's got very good skating ability," Ramsey said.
That size represents somewhat of a problem. Wilson is 6-foot-6, 212 pounds, and fans expect him to bash everything in sight.
"Any player that is big, they instantly want him to 'rail' people and be a real tough guy," Ramsey said. "Everybody loves those type of players -- guys that can be tough and can play. For Wilson, it isn't his nature. He can be physical. He can lay some big checks out, but that's not his game."
Wilson added, "It's a lot of fun to hammer a guy into the boards in the neutral zone, but a lot of times you are playing against top offensive players. Guys like Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg (of the Colorado Avalanche) -- if you go to hammer them, you have to angle them and stuff. A lot of the players you can't
hammer. . . . The fans don't like it as much, but if you eliminate a guy and keep him out of the play it's a lot better than hitting him hard and then he gets back into the play."
It's a matter, then, of Wilson learning to pick his spots. Ramsey frequently has used videotape in an effort to get him to improve in that area.
"You can go over situations with him -- finish a man here and see the results," Ramsey said. "If you don't, the guy may get back into the play and score a goal. If he was rubbed out, the play was over. You can show certain situations where playing the man will benefit you."
"We didn't do much video in my first two years; this year we're doing once or twice a week," Wilson said. "I think it's helping everyone. When you see it on tape, you know what you did and you know what you need to improve."
Wilson also tries to heed Ramsey's advice on the subject of playing defense. Wilson recognizes Ramsey picked up some tricks during 18 seasons in the NHL.
"Mike's been awesome," he said. "He's taught the little things in practice and during the game -- keeping your stick out, cutting down angles. Any little thing he can help you on, he does."
Wilson has plenty of time to learn the game and improve on his skills. He made such an immediate impact that it's easy to forget he's only 22 years old -- an age when most NHL defensemen are barely getting their feet wet.
"I know when I came into the league, they said a defenseman doesn't reach his maturity until he's 27 years old," Ramsey said. "Defense probably is the most difficult position to play, other than goaltender. You're the last wall of defense before it goes into the net. You're almost like a cornerback in football. You can look very bad back there. When it goes into the net, it's usually the defenseman that's closest to the puck.
"We're in a situation where we have a lot of young players here. Wilson did a fairly decent job last year, and we look forward for him to contribute -- and contribute in a big way -- this year."
The Sabres flew here from Denver on Wednesday, and took part in a practice shortly after arrival. They are preparing for Friday's game against the Carolina Hurricanes.