ROCHESTER – Chris Mueller hasn’t forgotten how he got here. The West Seneca native remembers the disappointment of going undrafted, the brief stints in the ECHL and the $40,000 salary that accompanied his fourth-line duty in the American Hockey League.
These days, Mueller, 32, is one of the AHL’s leading scorers and has a one-way NHL contract worth $650,000. Having won two Calder Cups in the past five years, including last season, the Toronto Marlies center ranks among the league’s most respected veterans.
“Sometimes it takes a long time, a marathon to get there,” Mueller said after scoring the Marlies’ only goal and pumping 11 shots on net in last Friday’s 5-1 loss to the Americans in Blue Cross Arena. “I’ve found a good home in Toronto.”
Mueller, who has 53 games of NHL experience, has played for 13 pro teams over parts of 12 seasons.
At an age when most players are beginning to gray, Mueller is enjoying a career season. Having already compiled 16 goals and 34 points in 31 games, the Nichols High School graduate is on pace to score 38 goals and 81 points over a full campaign.
Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe credited Mueller's scoring prowess to his ability to get into tight spaces around the net.
“He’s extremely hungry," Keefe said, “not that he wasn’t last year. But I think with winning last year and some turnover in our team, I think that he’s hungry to kind of be the guy this year.”
Mueller sensed something special when he joined the Marlies last season. They possessed perhaps the AHL’s best depth, a strong mix of prospects and veterans and an array of valuable resources from the Maple Leafs.
Mueller said he felt so good about their chances to win a championship, he signed a longer lease – he said his expired June 5 – because he expected a playoff run could last months.
“I believe that we had a chance if we just kept it going,” Mueller said. “I’m happy I signed that lease, that’s for sure. Some guys were scrambling.”
Mueller chose the Marlies because of the program Keefe and Leafs General Manager Kyle Dubas have established and the philosophies he shares with them.
“The Maple Leafs are basically the New York Yankees of the NHL, the top of the line,” Mueller said. “Kyle Dubas made it a priority to make the Marlies that way, too. That’s what’s drawn me to him. He wants to win here. He believes, like I believe, that the best development is winning.”
Keefe said Mueller “is an ultra-competitor.”
“He’s got a desire to win that I haven’t seen,” Keefe said. “I’d say it’s unmatched in my experience in players at the American League level. I don’t know in a lot of cases that actually winning the Calder Cup is too high on players’ priority list.”
Mueller said the Marlies have “so many staff members it’s crazy.”
“Whatever you need to be successful on the ice and as a person off the ice, they do,” Mueller said. “A lot of organizations, sometimes you forget that they’re human beings and 19-, 20-, 21-year-old kids that need to find their way sometimes.”
At 21, Mueller was a senior at Michigan State about to begin his pro career. Early on, he played eight total games for two ECHL teams before earning a regular gig with the Milwaukee Admirals, the Nashville Predators’ AHL affiliate.
“It was definitely disappointing that I didn’t get drafted,” Mueller said. “I’ve seen a lot of my classmates and my good friends that I thought I was maybe equal to or right there go and get a really good opportunity right away, and I kind of had to take the long route.”
What was the knock on the 5-foot-10, 196-pound Mueller then?
“Maybe my speed,” Mueller said. “I wasn’t as quick as a lot of guys coming out of college. Maybe that’s what held me back, maybe that’s why I didn’t get drafted.”
Still, Mueller found a home with the Predators, parlaying an AHL contract into an NHL deal during the 2010-11 season.
Mueller is still grateful for the opportunities that Predators General Manager David Poile, coach Barry Trotz and Admirals coach Lane Lambert gave him.
“They gave me a little more ice time,” Mueller said. “Then the next year, they told me you’re going to play a bigger role. It seemed like I kept scoring, I kept playing well.”
Mueller made his NHL debut Dec. 28, 2010.
“I don’t have any regrets as far as the way my career has started,” said Mueller, who has also played for the Dallas Stars and New York Rangers. “It was a long road.”
Not surprisingly, Mueller, who lives in West Bloomfield, Mich., with his wife, Sasha, and their three children, grew up a Sabres fan. He’s excited they’ve started winning again after so many down seasons.
Mueller always wanted to play for his childhood team.
“I wish they would’ve gave me an opportunity,” Mueller said. “Always come free agency, (I’m) … asking my agent about Buffalo, is there ever a chance? But it’s exciting (they’re winning). Now we just need the Bills to get going.”