ROCHESTER – Nathan Paetsch figured sooner or later his services would be needed. Defensemen are usually a precious commodity this time of year.
After six months and nearly a full season of games, injuries, recalls and trades weaken American Hockey League blue lines.
Earlier this season, Paetsch, 36, ranked 10th on the Americans’ depth chart. The affable veteran sat out the first 20 games as a healthy scratch.
Following his debut Dec. 1, the former Sabres player was scratched 40 of the next 45 contests. He made two of his five appearances at forward.
“I’ve been around long enough I know how quick things can change,” said Paetsch, who played four straight games before sitting out the last three.
The Amerks’ defense has been in flux for months. The Sabres recently sent down rookie Lawrence Pilut and Matt Tennyson. After spending nearly three months in Buffalo, Pilut returned in February and played 12 games before they recalled him. Rookie Will Borgen came back from his first NHL stint last week.
On Feb. 24, the Sabres traded AHL All-Star Brendan Guhle. Earlier in the season, the Sabres dished Taylor Fedun, who has earned regular duty with the Dallas Stars.
Zach Redmond, a league MVP candidate before suffering a lower-body injury Jan. 23, returned from a six-game absence Friday.
With the defense corps so depleted, Amerks coach Chris Taylor recently turned to Paetsch.
“Definitely rewarding for him, all his hard work and what he’s brought all year, it’s nice that he’s playing some games on a regular basis,” Taylor said last week.
Of course, Paetsch, a veteran of 640 AHL games, knew his role when he re-signed with the Amerks this year, his 16th pro season.
The Amerks wanted Paetsch to mentor Sabres prospects. Playing time would be probably be infrequent.
That was OK with him.
“I had no intention of ever even asking to go somewhere,” said Paetsch, who lives in Rochester year-round and recently was named the Amerks’ “Man of the Year” for his community service. “It was only here.”
Not surprisingly, Paetsch said his timing was a little off when he played March 24, his seventh appearance this season.
“Then the second game got a little bit better, and then by the third and fourth game, I fully got to really settle in and started making plays I know I’m capable of making again,” Paetsch said.
In the Amerks’ 6-4 road win over the Binghamton Devils on March 30, Paetsch scored his first goal this season, an empty-netter, and added an assist.
The Amerks went 3-0-1 with Paetsch in the lineup. But with Borgen and Redmond back Friday, he was scratched again. Newcomers Casey Fitzgerald and Kurt Gosselin, both of whom recently left college, played over Paetsch.
Despite the change on the blue line, the Amerks have kept winning.
“Everybody’s just buying into what we’re doing,” Taylor said. “They’re just continuing to play the right way. If we get down a goal or two goals, we’re not putting our heads down, we’re just continuing to do what we’re doing and we’re finding ways to get some points right now.”
The first time Amerks center Kyle Criscuolo returned from an injury this season, he said he “never really found my spot.”
After missing 19 games, Criscuolo, 26, played 19 games before another injury shelved him 14 contests.
But Criscuolo has started finding his groove over the past few weeks, scoring two goals and five points over a recent five-game stretch.
Criscuolo set up Eric Cornel’s late winning goal in a come-from-behind victory March 30. The Harvard product had a goal and two points in a 5-2 road victory against the Toronto Marlies on March 23. The next day in Toronto, he scored the tying goal with 22 seconds left in regulation, helping the Amerks win 5-4 in overtime.
“I feel like right now, I’m letting the game come to me and not forcing anything,” Criscuolo said recently. “It’s just good to string a couple together.”
Criscuolo enjoyed a terrific season a year ago, his first in Rochester, compiling 15 goals and 34 points in 51 outings. He also earned a nine-game look with the Sabres.
Redmond, 30, has played only 15 of the last 32 games. Friday’s contest was his first appearance since March 16.
“For his first game in a long time, I thought he played well,” Taylor said. “I thought he skated well, I thought he did a lot of different things well. It’s tough coming back and playing a team like this.”
Following a torrid three-month run, Redmond has cooled down, compiling zero goals and five points in his last 12 outings.
Overall, Redmond has scored a team-record 21 goals and 50 points in 56 games this season.