The Sabres have three rookies playing defense. Nikita Zadorov gets attention for being an aggressive hitter who’s not afraid to take chances. Rasmus Ristolainen generates looks for being a smooth big man drafted eighth overall.
Then there’s Mark Pysyk.
“He’s the one who’s ready,” Buffalo blue-liner Henrik Tallinder said Wednesday.
Indeed, while this year’s first-round picks have created a buzz, Pysyk has quietly settled in as possibly Buffalo’s best defender. He’s near the top in several team and league categories as the Sabres visit the Rangers tonight in New York.
The 21-year-old has been playing top-pair minutes all season. Pysyk averages 20 minutes, 20 seconds of ice time per game, trailing only defense partner Christian Ehrhoff (24:44) and fellow blue-liner Tyler Myers (21:33) on the Sabres. More impressively, Pysyk is third on the NHL’s rookie list behind Nashville’s Seth Jones (24:42) and Winnipeg’s Jacob Trouba (21:15).
“And he’s really consistent with it, which is the toughest thing to do for a young player,” Ehrhoff said after practice in First Niagara Center. “It’s impressive.”
Pysyk has been victimized for only four of the opponents’ 41 goals this season, a big reason why he’s tied for the team lead in plus/minus with Ehrhoff and newcomer Matt Moulson. They’re plus-1, the only three guys on the team with a positive rating.
Pysyk is fifth on the Sabres in Corsi rating, which tracks how many shots are directed at the opposing goalie versus how many a player’s own goalie faces whenever that player is on the ice. Though he’s at minus-3.78, it’s much better than the rating of Myers (minus-16.09), Mike Weber (minus-26.16) and Ristolainen (minus-29.76, worst on the team).
“You want to play the most you can,” Pysyk said. “You’ve got to earn it, and hopefully I can continue to play these minutes.”
He’s not taking anything for granted. Pysyk, drafted 23rd overall in 2010, struggled in Rochester early last year during his first pro season. He continually improved and played 16 games for the Sabres after the lockout ended. He went back to the Amerks for their short playoff series, but he has no desire to leave the NHL again.
“It’s a fun game, obviously, a fun lifestyle, a fun career,” Pysyk said. “Playing in the NHL is a dream of everybody, and you want to make sure that what you did today makes sure you’re going to be here tomorrow.
“The nature of the game and the business is it could be gone any second. Obviously, a lot of things can happen pretty quickly, so you’ve got to enjoy every game.”
Pysyk excels by playing a calm, poised game. His father, Terry, always remained levelheaded while making decisions, and Pysyk picked up the trait.
“He’s patient as a defenseman,” Tallinder said. “Usually, when you’re young you try to force things, try to go where the puck is. He has a lot of poise, trying to get in the right position where the play comes to him. That’s really remarkable for Mark at his age.”
“It’s part of his character,” said Ehrhoff, who described his partner as easygoing. “He doesn’t get too worried, and that helps him on the ice.”
The next step is to help the team get some victories. The Sabres have the worst record in the NHL at 2-11-1 as they visit the 4-7 Rangers.
“We’ve got to start winning here, have a little more team success,” Pysyk said. “It’s fun to be in the NHL, but it’s going to be a lot more fun once we start winning.”
Based on practice, Zadorov is in line to be the healthy scratch among defensemen tonight. The three pairs were Pysyk and Ehrhoff, Tallinder and Myers, and Ristolainen with Jamie McBain. Zadorov skated with suspended forward John Scott.
Scott, though not playing, will be busy in New York. He has a hearing with NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan to discuss last week’s head shot on Boston’s Loui Eriksson. Scott has already sat three games, while Eriksson has yet to return to the Bruins because of a concussion.
The Sabres and their fans will miss the farewell tour of one of the top scorers in NHL history.
Teemu Selanne needed oral surgery after taking a high-stick in the mouth Tuesday night, and Anaheim said the forward will miss two weeks. The Sabres host the Ducks on Saturday and visit Anaheim on Nov. 8.
The 43-year-old announced over the summer he was coming back for a final season, his 22nd in the NHL. Selanne has been a star since Day One, bursting into the league with 76 goals in his rookie year of 1992-93 – a goal total that tied Buffalo’s Alexander Mogilny for tops in the league that year. Selanne has 678 goals (which ranks 11th all time) and 1,437 points in 1,398 games with Winnipeg, Anaheim, San Jose and Colorado.