The Buffalo Sabres have stashed defenseman Mark Pysyk in Rochester for much of the season even though anyone watching their games can tell you the 23-year-old has been better than a good chunk of the players they’ve had on their blue line since October.
Pysyk is one of Buffalo’s top prospects, a 2010 first-round draft pick with top-4 potential on the back end. Even though he played 63 NHL games the previous two seasons – and had also played 88 in the AHL – Sabres General Manager Tim Murray wanted to see his game develop in all situations. And it was deemed the best way to do that was in the minors.
Coach Ted Nolan has clearly been unhappy to not have Pysyk, who played 18½ more strong minutes in Thursday’s 6-3 win over the Vancouver Canucks in First Niagara Center. On multiple occasions this week, Nolan openly pointed out how coach and GM don’t agree on the point.
Pysyk was up for four games in December but went back to the minors for nearly two more months as the Sabres got healthy on defense.
Said Nolan on Monday: “Last time he was up, he looked ready for prime time.”
After Tuesday’s win in Columbus, where Pysyk scored his second goal of the season and played 18 solid minutes, the coach was even more blunt when asked if Pysyk’s play is making a return to Rochester a difficult proposition.
“It’s never difficult for me,” Nolan said. “I know where he should be, but in the process we’re going through here, it’s out of our control.”
Nolan, of course, is clearly referring to the Sabres keeping Pysyk behind journeymen as a means to stay at the bottom of the standings and secure the best odds for April’s NHL Draft Lottery. Thursday’s win pulled the last-place Sabres within three points of idle Edmonton.
A pawn in the whole situation, Pysyk has simply tried to go about his business and not get caught in the mental gymnastics of the team’s roster moves.
“You know it’s a business and you learn they have to do what they think they need to,” Pysyk said. “You’re here to play. When you worry about other things, you’ll start playing bad. You have to worry about what you’re doing on the ice.
“I looked at it as an opportunity to build my confidence and work on some things I might not have been able to do here. It’s their decision and you trust in what they’re doing.”
The Buffalo defense is clearly better with Pysyk, as evidenced by the fact the Sabres held the Canucks to just three shots on goal in the first period Thursday and 15 over the first 40 minutes. Pysyk also registered his first assist of the season, on Brian Flynn’s insurance goal with 1:32 left.
“He’s playing great for us,” said captain Brian Gionta. “The poise he plays with back there tells you he’s going to have a bright future for sure.”
Pysyk’s all-around game has improved because he’s followed Murray’s order to develop more of an attacking style to create an offensive element.
“They really wanted to see me move feet, push myself more and not stay in a comfortable area,” Pysyk said. “That part of my game is getting there. On the big stage of the NHL, mistakes are magnified. Playing in ‘Roch’ lots of minutes helps with that confidence and I’m working on being sure to move my feet and make that second nature.”
Pysyk did exactly that in Tuesday’s game, scoring his goal by forging into the offensive zone to take a drop pass from Flynn. He did it again in the second period Thursday, sneaking in from the right point and firing just wide of Vancouver goaltender Eddie Lack on a nice pass from Phil Varone. The Sabres also rewarded him with point work on one of their power-play units Thursday.
Pysyk’s status, however, is certainly in limbo. Fellow blueliners Andrej Meszaros, Andre Benoit and Tyson Strachan are all pending unrestricted free agents and could be in play by Monday’s NHL trade deadline. Meanwhile, Nikita Zadorov was scratched for the third straight game, with the last two of those coming after he was late for Sunday morning’s team meeting.
There’s a good chance Zadorov and Strachan, who has been out with an undisclosed infection, will be available when the Sabres play the Florida Panthers on Saturday afternoon in Sunrise. So Pysyk could be heading back up the Thruway.
“I’m not sure what’s going to happen the next few days,” he said. “Nobody is sure.”
The Sabres scored a season-high four goals in the third period and improved to 3-1-2 in their last six games with Thursday’s win. Torrey Mitchell and Chris Stewart were standouts in what would be their final home game if they’re traded.
Mitchell tallied twice, including the tiebreaking goal on a backhand with 7:17 left. Stewart had a breakaway tally in the second period and an assist on Flynn’s goal, beating Lack to the puck in the faceoff circle and feeding Flynn for a tap-in to a vacated net.