Nathan Paetsch never played forward when he was a kid. Back in LeRoy, Saskatchewan, his coach threw his best players on the blue line because they could carry the puck and play more minutes. He once scored every goal in a 10-0 victory while stickhandling end to end for most of the game.
He's no longer skating circles around the other kids. If anything, his season with the Sabres has been spinning in circles. He's had the thankless role of seventh defenseman and has been a healthy scratch 34 times. His biggest problem has been his defense, a serious weakness considering his job description.
Sabres coach Lindy Ruff has found a solution that plays to Paetsch's strengths while giving him more ice time and his team more options. He dressed the 25-year-old as an extra defenseman and gave him a regular shift on the fourth line against Montreal last Friday, a decision that helped the Sabres to a 3-2 victory.
Paetsch scored a critical goal and played well enough to convince Ruff to continue the experiment the following night in Ottawa, where he played the first two periods at forward and the third on defense. Where will he be tonight when the Sabres play the Senators in HSBC Arena? He didn't know and really didn't care.
"It gets me in the lineup more, so it's all the best," Paetsch said. "I like playing both positions. It doesn't bother me, either or. They put me in the lineup to play hockey. It's nice to be able to play both, and I'm comfortable going back and forth."
It certainly beats going back and forth to the press box. He played only 18 games before being tossed on a line with center Adam Mair and Matt Ellis against the Habs. All three are classic NHL plumbers -- hey, the Pipe Line? -- intent on establishing a strong forecheck and outworking their opponents on both ends of the ice.
"I've been really impressed [with] the ability, as well as he did up front, and the energy he gave us," Ruff said. "I thought in back-to-back games, that line was possibly, man for man, shift for shift, our best line at generating, getting it deep and making something happen."
Mair has spent most of his career between the third and fourth lines while trying to prove his value. Ellis is playing for his third organization in two years after stops in Detroit and Los Angeles. Paetsch has been on the fringes all season and watched rookies promoted from Portland skate past him on the depth chart after the Sabres ran into injuries.
So why not put the three bangers together?
"It's just three blue-collar guys," Paetsch said. "Look where we come from and our backgrounds. It's just three guys who want the puck more than the other guys. We may not be able to out-stickhandle or out-finesse them, but we're definitely going to try to outwork them."
Ruff thought enough of Paetsch to play him over Daniel Paille, who is expected back in the lineup tonight with Thomas Vanek recovering from a broken jaw. Paetsch didn't know he was playing left wing against Montreal until the pregame warmup but found instant chemistry with his new linemates.
They generated several scoring chances before Paetsch buried a pass from Mair to give Buffalo a 2-1 lead. They were effective in Ottawa, where Mair scored early in the third period, on a play started by Ellis, that helped Buffalo earn a point after Paetsch moved back to defense.
"Both of those guys are real hard-working players who have a little bit to prove," Mair said. "When you have hungry guys, you know, it makes a difference. We had success these last two games. Hopefully, it can continue."
If nothing else, Paetsch gives the Sabres more flexibility and can stabilize the blue line, if necessary. He played wing for about 40 games as a rookie in Rochester in 2003-04 but had played only a few shifts up front in the NHL. Ruff played both defense and wing as did Craig Rivet in Montreal and Sabres prospect Marc-Andre Gragnani in Rochester.
Some would argue that Paetsch is a tweener, but others would say he found a role suited for his game. He's a very good skater and playmaker, which makes him an offensive defenseman. His instincts are geared toward slowing down the opponent, which makes him a defensive forward. Ultimately, he's an asset.
"It's a great thing to have in your back pocket," Rivet said. "It's showing the organization and the coaching staff that not only can he play defense, but he's also available on forward. It's obviously a good thing to have."
>Sabres vs. Senators
Faceoff: 7:30 p.m. HSBC Arena TV: MSG Radio: 550 AM Season series: Senators, 2-1