Erik Rasmussen hopes he learned some lessons in his first year as a professional hockey player. Now it's time to put his education to good use.
Rasmussen is expected to be in the Buffalo Sabres' lineup tonight when they host the Toronto Maple Leafs in Marine Midland Arena (7 p.m., Empire, 104.1 FM). It's the only home date on the Sabres' preseason schedule.
The former first-round draft choice of the Sabres has finished his first week of training camp, and already he's noticed a big change in his outlook from last season.
"I was scared and nervous coming in (last year)," Rasmussen said. "I didn't know how I was going to fit in, how I was going to play. You question your skill, and your confidence goes down. You don't know how much you can do on the ice, and how much you dare to try on the ice as a rookie. That affected me a lot last year. Coming in this year, I'm expected to play well. I'm expected to do my job, and that's the main difference."
Now that the Sabre veterans are back from Austria, the battle for roster spots will start to shape up. Rasmussen has a chance to complicate the team's situation at forward if he has a strong training camp.
"He's a key," coach Lindy Ruff said. "I'm anxious to see what he was doing in the offseason."
Buffalo had hopes that Rasmussen could add size and strength to the team last season, but it turned out he wasn't quite ready for the NHL. The former University of Minnesota star opened the season in Buffalo, but he admits he was in awe of his surroundings and played tentatively.
"How can you not?" he asked. "I'd grown up watching the NHL. It's every kid's dream who plays hockey to be in the NHL. When you get there, it's like, 'What am I doing on the ice?' When you face-off against any superstar in the league, you wonder, 'Should I be on the ice against this guy or not?'
"When it comes down to it, you are a player just like they are. You have to put it out of your mind and play hockey."
Rasmussen eventually played in 21 games (two goals and three assists) for the Sabres, with most of them coming in the first quarter of the season. Eventually Buffalo decided it would be better for Rasmussen to play in Rochester.
"I thought I played well enough to stay, but the plan was for me to be in the minors for a year as a learning year -- get experience and get a lot of ice time," Rasmussen said. "I didn't take it very well in the beginning. The maturity factor was definitely a part of that. Once you start playing badly, you get into ruts in practice where you're not working hard. Things aren't working for you on the ice.
"I was probably not mentally into the game for two weeks. Physically, it takes time to get back into the game and to do the right things on the ice all the time. It took three, four weeks to get all the way back into the game."
Amerks' coach Brian McCutcheon added, "When he came to us in Rochester, Erik might be the first one to admit he thought things would come fairly easily in the AHL, not realizing it's a really good hockey league. He had to be prepared to play at his best to contribute. It took a while for him to make that adjustment."
Rasmussen had one other major obstacle to overcome in his rookie season -- the long pro schedule. After participating in about 30 games a year in college, an 82-game pro season -- plus the preseason and playoffs -- was a shock. Rasmussen tired slightly past the halfway point.
"That was huge. I hit 50 games, and my body was telling me to quit," Rasmussen said. "I just couldn't do it. But it was good to get down and play as many games as possible. I feel personally I'm behind the guys who played major junior hockey. They've played 80 games a year. You learn how to play the game in actual games. Practice helps your technique and skill, but you don't get the feel for game situations unless you are actually in the game. The more games I play, the better."
Injuries limited Rasmussen to 28 games (10 goals, 13 assists) for Rochester, but he did show more flashes of his ability late in the season. He spent the summer working out and skating in Minnesota, and has given every indication he's ready to challenge for a job.
"At this point in camp, he's the best forward in the group (of prospects and rookies) we have," said McCutcheon, who stayed behind while the NHL team was in Austria. "I've been very happy with his physical abilities, and he's very settled mentally and he's come prepared to play."
It's likely in the next few weeks that Rasmussen will get looks at both left wing and center. He's played both positions during his career.
"I would encourage looking at him at both positions, and see where he performs the best," McCutcheon said. "They are looking for a power forward-type player, and he's put on some size and strength this summer. He has the skating ability. He can lower his shoulder and go to the net. He can work hard in the corner and be effective. He's strong on his feet. He could fill that role. But I think they'll also give him a look at center."
Center is the most crowded position on the team., with Brian Holzinger, Michael Peca, Derek Plante and sometimes-winger Curtis Brown at the position. Rasmussen believes he has much in common with Wayne Primeau, another big center who can play wing and who has been trapped behind the Sabres' depth at the position.
"Wayne can play first- or second-line center, but with the guys ahead of him he hasn't been able to do that," Rasmussen said. "There are guys on this team that have proven themselves. We have to make it so obvious that we are going to beat out guys."