Longtime Sabres beat writer Bill Hoppe of BuffaloHockeyBeat.com will be writing about Sabres prospects, the Rochester Americans and related topics this season.
ROCHESTER – Nathan Paetsch signed for his 16th pro season knowing this could happen: So far, the popular former Sabres defenseman has been scratched for all 10 of the Americans’ games.
On a blue line that goes 10 deep, Paetsch, 35, ranks last on the depth chart.
But the affable Paetsch, who played 167 NHL games, understands why the Amerks brought him back for another year.
“The situation going in, I wasn’t naive by any means,” Paetsch said during the second intermission of a recent game in Blue Cross Arena. “That’s really why I’m here, to help develop the younger guys, move them along. It’s just as important as what I do.”
Paetsch considers himself a mentor for Sabres prospects.
“He is kind of almost like another coach sometimes,” Amerks defenseman Brendan Guhle said.
But Paetsch is careful about using the word "coach."
“I would never step on their toes,” Paetsch said. “I’m here to help with them.”
So Paetsch might watch video with a youngster, an activity he has done for years, or talk to a defenseman during practice at the coaching staff’s request. He said he wants to do whatever he can to “help build the organization.”
“He’s a classy guy,” said Amerks coach Chris Taylor, who played three seasons with Paetsch in Rochester. “He teaches young kids how to practice every day, he loves the game. … He’s just a guy that you want in the dressing room for young people to watch and learn.”
Having played 849 pro games, including 630 in the AHL, Paetsch is uniquely qualified for his role. He developed in the Sabres system, spending three seasons with the Amerks.
In his early days, he fought for playing time, even occasionally skating at forward.
“He was just one of those guys he did anything,” Taylor said.
Paetsch quietly developed into a strong prospect. After a 50-point season and an appearance in the AHL All-Star Game in 2005-06, he graduated to Buffalo, where he spent the next three and a half years.
When Paetsch’s NHL career ended following a brief stint with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2010, he transitioned into a new phase with the Grand Rapids Griffins.
He won two Calder Cups with the Detroit Red Wings’ affiliate, morphing into one of the AHL’s top veteran defensemen.
Paetsch re-signed with the Amerks last year, coming full circle and returning to his adopted home. He and his wife, Jaclyn, live in Spencerport with their children.
He played only 22 games in 2017-18, partly because he broke a leg early in the season. Still, the Amerks re-signed him to a one-year AHL contract in June.
“I’ve taken pride in that part of what I (do),” Paetsch said. “I think that’s the reason why a guy like me gets re-signed after playing (22) games. It’s not because I tore up the league by any means, it’s to help out the young guys. …
“Guys just don’t want to hear from coaches all the time. But when they can hear from a guy that’s still playing, maybe sometimes the message gets through a little better, I hope.”
Paetsch’s warm personality might enhance that message. He always seems to have a smile etched on his face and some positive words to share.
“He’s a good people guy,” said Sabres winger Jason Pominville, who played with Paetsch in Rochester and Buffalo. “He’s a guy that was always fun to hang out with, a guy I could see him probably coaching when he’s done. I can see a lot of guys look up to (him) because of that, because you kind of get drawn into him because of his personality.”
Not surprisingly, Paetsch said he would like to coach after he’s done playing.
“I love this organization and the area and I want to stay within the organization,” Paetsch said. “What capacity it is, I don’t know. I’m not getting any younger and I know where I’m at in my career.”
But Taylor, who played until he was 39, knows retiring isn’t easy.
“He’s pretty similar to what I was at that age,” Taylor said. “I wanted to be a player and only a player. But you can see the attributes that he brings that he will be a coach someday just because of how he talk to players, how he handles players.
“But he’s definitely a player, and that’s what I like about him, he doesn’t try to do both. He’s just an extension of us. He fits in perfect. We couldn’t have a better guy in our dressing room.”
Paetsch knows how to handle sitting out. During his NHL days, he was usually the Sabres’ seventh or eighth defenseman, meaning they sometimes scratched him for weeks at a time.
"When the situation does arise (to play), I’ll be ready,” Paetsch said.
That opportunity could materialize soon.
“There’s no doubt in my mind he’ll be playing lots of games for us,” Taylor said. “It’s one of those situations he understands. But he hasn’t complained. He’s one of the guys that just keeps working harder and keeps pushing the other guys.”