Chris Gratton is not a dipsy-doodle kind of guy.
At 6-foot-4, 226 pounds, Gratton does not zip or dart, so he knows better than to meander. While linemates Maxim Afinogenov and Slava Kozlov chase all over the ice like wind-up dolls on caffeine highs, Gratton has to be content to get from Point A to Point B as efficiently as possible -- preferably while taking out a few opposing players in the process.
And sometimes the big center's journey stops well short of Point B. In the third period of the Buffalo Sabres' 4-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks Tuesday night, Gratton won a faceoff in the defensive zone and poked the puck to Afinogenov. Afinogenov took off toward Sharks goalie Mikka Kiprusoff, traversing the ice faster than Lindy Ruff can say "line reshuffling." Gratton and most of the other skaters on the ice were still at the red line when Afinogenov netted his third goal of the season.
"With the speed that he has, I knew he was going to beat the defenseman," Gratton said. "I just wanted to get the puck a little ahead of Max and let him skate into it. When he gets the chance to skate into a puck, he's one of the fastest guys in the league.
"I'm trying to figure out which way he's going to go, actually. I'm just trying to catch up and go and plant myself in front of the net."
After playing with Afinogenov and Kozlov for the first five games of the season, Gratton was used on a variety of other lines in the next three games, while Stu Barnes took his place between the speedy Russians. But even as he lamented his demotion off the Sabres' second line, Gratton was racking up more and more ice time every game. He played 10 minutes, 49 seconds in an Oct. 14 loss to Pittsburgh, 15:39 in an Oct. 16 tie with Nashville, 16:26 in Friday's loss to Columbus and 18:33 in Saturday's victory over Montreal, in which he was reunited with Kozlov and Afinogenov.
"It was hard for me at first," Gratton said of adjusting to his diminutive linemates' styles. "There's an adjustment period, because they both like to keep moving and criss-cross, whereas myself I don't like to do much criss-crossing -- I just like to go straight to the net and just get myself planted. I'm learning from them and every day we get a chance to play with each other we're learning off each other and learning new things. And I think that's what makes a line good."
It's a challenge the 26-year-old center relishes.
"I'm going to let Max and Kozie create and do their skating and their great moves. I'm just going to go to the net and play a straightforward style of game and hopefully I get a couple of tip-ins or a couple of goals that come off of their work," Gratton said. "I play a different style than they play, and they're both exciting hockey players and you don't want to take that away from them and you don't want to (stifle) their creativity. You want to let them play to their ability, and that's what we hope to do."
Defenseman Dmitri Kalinin might be known as "Tree," but Gratton is the one who looks like an elm between two shrubs every time he lines up with his linemates. The difference in size and muscle means Gratton can, even must, play the hard-checking style he favors.
"There are times when it is my job to help out a teammate or stick up for myself as well. That's part of the game and it's something I have to do to contribute to this hockey club," said Gratton, who ranks second on the team with 19 penalty minutes this season.
"We have a lot of speedy forwards and smaller forwards and it is kind of (the bigger players') job."
Even while playing that physical style, Gratton seems to be regaining his offensive touch. He continues to play with the fire he showed in last season's playoffs, when he led the Sabres with six goals and recorded career postseason bests in goals, assists (4) and points (10). Is this the year he finally silences his critics by carrying that form through 82 games?
"I hope so. I came into camp in good shape and I've felt good since the beginning, so things have gone a little better of late and hopefully they will continue to go like that," said Gratton, who has two goals and three assists. "Any time you get a little extra ice time it allows you to gain confidence."