Nick Schaus pocketed about $300 from his first hockey paycheck last week, giving him enough to fill the tank in his beat-up 1997 Jeep Cherokee and take his girlfriend out for a decent meal. Really, it sounded like a pretty good score for a few days of hockey practice.
Schaus signed a one-year contract as a free agent with the San Jose Sharks and began his professional career last weekend in AHL Worcester. He was given a $60,000 signing bonus, still to be collected, and $60,000 for next season in the AHL. If he gets called up to the big club, his salary will soar to $600,000.
Heck, he felt rich with a few hundred bucks.
"Compared to what I was used to, yeah," he said with a laugh.
Schaus, of Orchard Park, took the long road to professional hockey. He was among the Buffalo-area rink rats born in 1986 -- a group that includes Sabres winger Tim Kennedy -- who came through the ranks at the same cycle. He left home at age 16 and spent four seasons with Omaha in the United States Hockey League.
Undrafted but undeterred, Schaus worked on his game after earning a scholarship to UMass-Lowell with the idea he would eventually sign with an NHL team. Many undrafted players -- Brian Rafalski and Martin St. Louis for example -- have gone on to have terrific NHL careers. Schaus is hoping to join them someday.
"I've always thought of myself as a good player," Schaus said. "I grew up with guys that played pro and always thought I was as good as them. Even though I wasn't drafted, I knew I was a good player and would get an opportunity at some point."
Schaus, 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, played under former Niagara coach Blaise MacDonald at UMass-Lowell and blossomed into its best all-around defenseman as a junior. He had four goals and 23 points in 37 games as a senior and had several teams interested before he signed with San Jose.
Schaus, 23, fits the mold of many players who come from Western New York. He's hard-working, hard-hitting, smart and competitive. Every summer, he returned to help former coaches with clinics while working on his game. The goal for him now will be refining skills he developed along the way.
"Nicky, growing up, was always one of the top players," Kennedy said. "I think he has the skills to play in this league, and I think he can turn a lot of heads. He's a good skater, an aggressive player, a good hitter. That's what teams want."
All things considered, Schaus couldn't have asked for more. The Sharks want him to graduate from UMass-Lowell, where he will earn dual degrees in finance in May. The campus is 30 minutes from their rink in Worcester, allowing him to make an easy commute and balance professional hockey and school.
San Jose made the strongest commitment. His salary for next season is just $2,000 below the maximum allowed in the AHL. He was given a one-year deal, which was the only contract allowed for a player his age. He will likely spend next season in the AHL and will likely be among their top four along the blue line.
"I see his role moving forward as a shutdown-type defenseman with great physical abilities," MacDonald said. "What he may lack in feet and inches, he makes up in heart and desire. He's a phenomenally fit kid, very strong, very powerful. He really just needs to continue to [improve] his decision making and let the game come to him as opposed to trying to dictate the game with that big hit."
Schaus skated with the team last week and is expected to get some playing time in games before the regular season ends April 11. He's getting paid a prorated salary based on his contract for next season. The Sharks left him behind to work on his studies when they began a seven-game stretch on the road going into the weekend.
The Sharks entered the weekend atop the Atlantic Division and have a good reputation for grooming players. Amherst native Michael Mudd, a former hockey and baseball star and now senior vice president for hockey and business administration for the AHL team, presented Schaus with his first contract.
"It's a great team and a great group of guys," Schaus said. "It makes it pretty easy. Everything is going well for them, so it's easy to step in. It's been comfortable to come in and become a part of that. Both teams are contenders for both leagues. It's just a good organization to be in right now."
For all the questions in Buffalo about whether Ryan Miller can withstand the long season and the Olympics, the scrutiny has become more intense in Vancouver. Roberto Luongo, who helped Canada win the gold, is showing more signs of wear.
Miller had a 7-1-1 record with a 2.39 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage after the Olympics and remains the favorite to win the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top goaltender.
Luongo had a 6-3-1 record with a 3.20 GAA and .894 save percentage after the Winter Games. Included is a 1-2-1 slide with a 3.48 GAA and an .893 SP going into the weekend. After Jan. 30, he had an 8-6-1 record with a 3.20 GAA and .897 SP.
"I've been through a lot the last month, mentally and physically," Luongo said. "It was a high-intensity, high-pressure situation. I'd like to be playing more consistently, but I have to be patient with myself and not get frustrated with myself. That can be a problem for me. At the end of the day, I'm human like everybody else."
>'Z' back on track
Red Wings coach Mike Babcock stumbled across a line that finally has Henrik Zetterberg motoring like, well, Henrik Zetterberg. He had not played well by his standards before taking over the team scoring lead (65 points) last week.
Babcock threw him on a line with Valtteri Filppula and Todd Bertuzzi after Dan Cleary was injured and, voila, it worked. The line combined for 10 goals and 20 points in three games, including a stretch in which it scored seven straight. Zetterberg had three goals and seven points and Filppula added four goals and eight points.
It comes just in time for the Winged Wheels, who enjoyed an 8-1-1 stretch and a four-point lead over Calgary for the final playoff spot going into the weekend. Detroit is not the team conference powerhouses San Jose and Chicago would want to see in the first round of the postseason.
"Z's been better of late, and he's been a lot better since he's been with Fil," Babcock said. "Is that because he's with Fil or is that just the determination of Z? I don't know. But he seems to have turned the corner and he's playing with great energy. I don't care how good a player you are, confidence is fleeting. It's good to have him back."
>Oilers botched benchmark
The Oilers blew an opportunity to create a positive vibe in a terrible season when they passed up Canadian women's goalie and Edmonton native Shannon Szabados and summoned a third-stringer from the University of Calgary to sit on the bench in an emergency situation last week.
Szabados was outstanding in the Olympics in leading Canada to the gold medal and could have handled backup chores for a day. The word out of Edmonton was that she's just as qualified, if not more, than Nathan Deobold. He was called upon to sit behind Jeff Deslauriers for a 3-2 win over Vancouver while backup Devan Dubnyk had the flu.
"It's brutal, very disappointed," said Szabados, 24, who at age 16 became the first woman to play in the Western Hockey League. "It's the story of my life, being a girl goaltender. They don't give you the opportunity. . . . Instead, they flew [Deobold] up from Calgary when I was right here."
>Around the boards
* It looks more and more as if the Blue Jackets are targeting Portland coach Kevin Dineen as their next bench boss. Nashville assistant Brent Pederson and Detroit assistant Paul MacLean could also be in the mix, but Dineen's name has been floating around for weeks as the top candidate. He finished his 19-year career as a player in Columbus.
* Minnesota signed rookie Casey Wellman out of the University of Massachusetts and wasted no time promoting him to the NHL. The speedy center from California has been playing on a line with former Sharks winger Owen Nolan, his boyhood idol. Wellman had an assist in his NHL debut. "Really the only way he looks out of place is he just looks too young," Wild coach Todd Richards said.
* Lighting pest Steve Downie, the first player since Theoren Fleury in 2001-02 to have 20 goals and 200 penalty minutes in the same season, credited coach Rick Tocchet and assistant Adam Oates for him getting a better handle on his emotions. "They just know the way to handle me," he said. "When I get emotional, they settle me down."