Drew Schiestel sat at his locker looking up. He wasn't really smiling, but for the first time all season, he didn't have his head down in frustration. As questions came and went about his confidence, his past knee injury and the playoff race, you got the idea that he felt good just to be interviewed again. It was February and, until then, there had not yet been a reason for reporters to gather around him.
That night, there was good reason. His first-step explosion had come back. It had been a year since his knee injury and since he'd shown the burst that made him a legitimate NHL prospect and a 2010 American Hockey League All-Star. That night, it seemed months of rehab followed by months of battling tendinitis and struggles with confidence were finally behind him. And now that the explosiveness was back, he could focus on the Rochester Americans' playoff push.
But a week after finding his step, Schiestel was shipped South.
On March 6, the Buffalo Sabres loaned him to the Texas Stars – one of the worst teams in the league. There, he played the final 16 games with the abysmal Stars, scoring five points. The Amerks made the playoffs. He kept track of their first-round-out from home.
On Monday, as he stood in front of the Sabres/Amerks interview backdrop deep within Blue Cross Arena - with the same look on his face as he had last February – Schiestel told reporters “things happened for a reason.” He said that being sent to Texas was for the best and that he enjoyed his time there.
But being loaned out was a punch in the gut. There was no resolve until after the Amerks had been eliminated from the playoffs and he came back to Rochester for a year-end meeting with the coaching staff and Sabres' management.
“With the year-end meeting,” Schiestel said. “I'm really glad we had a chance to talk things out. I wish he had last year. But last year is last year.”
It's amazing how much has to go right for any player to ever make it to the NHL. Last season, the 6-foot-1, 197-pound stay-at-home defenseman came into camp as the No. 1 D-man for the Amerks. The Sabres' organization was still in flux entering the first full season of the Terry Pegula Era and they were fairly light on the back end. The Amerks brought in a former first-round pick Joe Finley, who had been let go back the Capitals' organization, and were sent Shaone Morrisonn for cap purposes. And mid-round pick prospect Brayden McNabb was entering his first AHL season.
He should have been top dog. Instead, Schiestel's slow start pushed him the depth chart. When injuries in the NHL started stacking up, he watched T.J. Brennan go up first. Then McNabb. Then Finley.
With irony as his enemy, the former second-round pick with “the tools to be a second-pairing defenseman” according to Hockey's Future, opened training camp this season looking up at at least five defenseman on the depth chart. McNabb is back in the AHL because the NHL players are locked out. Brennan's back, too. So is Finley. There are two more prospects in Mark Pysyk and Jerome Gauthier-Leduc.
Coach Ron Rolston said the Amerks will keep eight defenseman going into the regular season. Schiestel will have to fight for playing time with Alex Biega, Corey Fienhage, Nick Crawford and Matt McKenzie. And with the lockout killing Sabres' training camp, he's got all of two weeks and two pre-season games to prove he's back to 2010 form.
“He's got to earn a spot,” Rolston said in between practices on Monday. “There's a lot of good players back there. That's exactly what we want. We want guys here that compete and play for their jobs.”
Schiestel probably didn't expect a second chance with the Sabres. He was a restricted free agent and was ready to start off – or burst off – on the right foot with another organization. But the Sabres tendered him an offer – which he signed to stay in Western New York.
“I'm confidant in what I can do,” Schiestel said. “I know the level I can play at, so I have to let things take care of themselves. I've been in the Buffalo organization going on my fourth year pro and sixth year total, so guys in Buffalo know what I can do and I just have to work toward getting back to that level.”
Schiestel gets his first chance at a second impression on Wednesday when the Amerks face Scranton Wilkes-Barre in the first pre-season game.
Hear Schiestels complete comments here:
- Jerome Gauthier-Leduc and Jacob Lagace sat out with undisclosed injuries. Neither sounded series. Evan Rankin was back for the second straight day after sitting out with a virus.
- First-round pick Zemgus Girgensons talked about his first couple days around players with AHL and NHL experience:
"You just try to take notes them them. What they do, how they act off the ice and I just get better every day being around them. Day to day I get advice, but I'm not going to bother them with questions. You listen to them and you learn."
Girgensons discussed the opportunity to practice in front of Lindy Ruff and Darcy Regier.
"I do what I do in practice. I'm not going to try to change anything to impress them but I think it's a really good chance to show off what I got."
Ron Rolston on his early impressions of Girgensons:
"He's a good player. He competes, he's hard and he doesn't back down from anybody. Our young guys all have really good attitudes, it's a key to this year's team."
Rolston also talked about the challenge of evaluating so many players with so little time before the regular season:
"We have to make sure that our guys who are going to be here are going to be ready too, so it's a little bit of a double-edged sword. You want to give guys an opportunitiy, but you want the ones who are going to be here and be a big part of your team, you want them in the flow."
Here Rolston's complete comments here:
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