Chris Mueller skated into the weekend tied for 696th in the NHL in games played, 592nd in goals, 668th in assists, 694th in points, 691st in shots on goal and 388th in plus-minus ratio. The pedestrian numbers mean little when stuffed between the three words that matter most: in the NHL.
Three words made a world of difference to Mueller, the West Seneca native and former Nichols star who made his debut with Nashville on Dec. 28 against Dallas after taking a circuitous route to the NHL. It doesn't matter how he reached his ultimate goal or how long it took him to get there, only that he did.
"It's unbelievable," Mueller said last week by telephone. "Everybody says it's like a dream come true, and it really is. You worked this hard, all the sacrifices from everybody in your life, my parents, my family. Everything you did growing up to get to this point, you finally accomplished it. It's just an unbelievable feeling.
"When I called my dad [Rich], it was one of the best feelings, just to see his reaction after all the work paid off, all the money he spent, all the sacrifice. There were things he could have been doing otherwise, but we were up in Toronto. It's what I thought about."
Mueller played youth hockey for the Buffalo Regals and earned a full scholarship as a true freshman to Michigan State, a rarity these days in Division I hockey. He led the way to East Lansing, Mich., for South Buffalo natives Tim Kennedy and Mike Ratchuk, and the three helped the Spartans win the NCAA title in 2006-07.
All three have learned the road into the NHL is often long, winding and unforgiving. And the business that comes with staying there is even tougher.
Kennedy was drafted by Washington, was rudely dumped after one year with the Sabres and has been playing in AHL Hartford as property of the Rangers. Ratchuk was selected by Philadelphia, traded to Columbus and has played in four AHL cities in three years. He switched from defense to forward in an effort to reach the NHL.
Mueller, 24, was an undrafted free agent who played two games for AHL Grand Rapids after college, a year with the Lake Erie Monsters after signing with Colorado and the last two seasons in Milwaukee after signing with Nashville. He had 12 goals and 20 points in 33 games when he was summoned from the AHL after a rash of injuries to the Predators.
"It's pretty crazy, the completely different roads guys take," Mueller said. "Last year, I thought the NHL was so far off and I wasn't going to get there. Now, up I'm here in Nashville and going to practice with Ryan Suter and Shea Weber."
So far, pretty darned good.
Nashville won four straight with him in the lineup before Florida snapped the Predators' winning streak Thursday night. He has been on a line with former Sabres winger J.P. Dumont, for whom he cheered as a kid. Last week, he found Sharks star Joe Thornton standing across from him in the faceoff circle.
"Luckily, he got kicked out of the draw, so I had to face Dany Heatley," Mueller said. "I beat him, thank God. But it's a surreal feeling. Last week, I was playing this guy with a video game, and now I'm facing off against him. It's almost like a shock. But then it's just another game. The coach puts trust in you, and you have to do your job."
Mueller, at 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, was known as a smart, gritty center who was sound defensively coming out of college. The biggest question about his game was whether he could skate an NHL level. He spent parts of two seasons improving his feet and building strength in his legs.
Whaddya know? It worked.
"It's funny, but in college and Lake Erie with Colorado, they didn't re-sign me because skating and speed was an issue," he said. "I got to Milwaukee with Nashville and all I heard was, 'Use your speed. You're the fastest skater on the team.' What happened in two years? Maybe it was just me getting sick of hearing it."
Mueller was averaging about eight minutes on the fourth line and had won about 65 percent of his draws with the Preds. He was still looking for his first point going into his seventh NHL game Saturday night, against Patrick Kane and the Chicago Blackhawks. It appeared he'll stick around while Cal O'Reilly nurses a broken leg.
Not a bad gig, if you can get it. In less than three weeks, Mueller was set to pocket more than $44,000 of the $500,000 NHL salary he would have received for a full season.
"It equals more than my whole AHL salary from last year," said Mueller, who made $40,000 last season in Milwaukee. "It's pretty crazy. It's just a different world in terms of how we're treated, the chartered planes and stuff like that. It's been unbelievable."
>New faces coming
Billionaire Terry Pegula appeared weeks away from purchasing the Sabres, but look for several prospective general managers to get their resumes in order in anticipation of him making major changes. Him assuming ownership has created a steady buzz across the league and beyond.
In a column two weeks ago, Rick Dudley, Don Luce, Jim Benning, Craig Patrick, Claude Loiselle, Jason Botterill, Mike Mudd and Pierre McGuire were listed among those who could become available and/or are interested. Feel free to add former Wild GM Doug Risebrough and former Regier underling Larry Carriere to the possibilities.
Sources last week said Sabres minority partner Dan DiPofi is likely headed for the exits whenever Pegula takes over. Managing partner Larry Quinn and Regier are expected to remain through a transition process before departing.
By all accounts, Pegula wants to surround himself with winners and knows keeping Regier would be perceived as accepting status quo mediocrity. Regier didn't know until afterward that the Sabres released a statement acknowledging Pegula's visit to HSBC Arena last week, which was troubling.
>Don't even ask
Lightning GM Steve Yzerman, with his first trade deadline six weeks away, already has made it clear his draft picks in the first three rounds are not for sale. Stevie Y is intent on restocking the shelves in the system as he rebuilds.
In between Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards in 1998 and Steven Stamkos in 2008, the Bolts have not drafted a top-end player. Yzerman is willing to play through this season with his lineup mostly intact unless he sees a deal he can't refuse.
"I don't want to hold myself up to say we're not going to do anything," he told the St. Pete Times. "But I think it would be very difficult to add without giving something up of great value I wouldn't want to give up. . . I'll proceed cautiously."
>Likes it in Toronto
Clarke MacArthur has made it clear he wants to remain with the Leafs, who have yet to open contract negotiations. MacArthur already had a career-high 36 points and was three goals short of matching his career high of 17 goals.
"I don't know what's in store for me, but I would love to stay," he said. "It's the first year I've got to stay with the same couple of linemates and got back to just enjoying playing hockey. It hasn't been up, down and all over the place. It has made coming to the rink a lot easier."
If you remember, the Thrashers walked away from MacArthur's absurd $2.4 million arbitration award. He signed as an unrestricted free agent with the Leafs for $1.1 million, but he will be restricted again after this season. His status and low salary make him more valuable in the trade market if he doesn't fit into GM Brian Burke's long-term plans.
Veteran forward Brendan Morrison after the Flames' fourth straight loss: "Same story. Do we feel we should have won the game? Yes. Did we win the game? No. At some point, it's got to stop. Before we know it, we'll be walking off the cliff and it'll be completely over."
>Around the boards
* Daniel Sedin skated into the weekend with 25 goals while Ryan Kesler had 24 with the Canucks. If both reach the 50-goal mark, they would become the first teammates to reach the milestone in the same year since former Penguins stars Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr did in 1995-96.
* Jordan Staal had a goal and two assists in the Penguins' win over the Canadiens on Thursday, eight months to the day of his last point. Finally back from injuries, he's back on a line with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy.
* The Kings opened the season with a 12-3 record and looked like a conference contender. They had lost seven of eight overall and six of seven games of an eight-game homestand going into Saturday night's game against Edmonton. If the losses keep piling up, GM Dean Lombardi could be forced to fire his coach and friend, Terry Murray.
* St. Louis snapped a five-game losing streak last week with a 3-1 victory over L.A. It ended the Blues' third five-game skid this season. The enigmatic team also had two winning streaks of five games or more. "It's tough to put a finger on," Blues forward B.J. Crombeen said. "Obviously if we knew, we would adjust."