It has been a bizarre 365 days for defenseman Mark Pysyk. He has played under three different head coaches, spent significant time as a top-pairing NHL defenseman, been a healthy scratch in the NHL, been sent down to Rochester, then brought back up, then sent back down. All in the same organization.
And none of it has phased him. Pysyk is what you might call a quiet hockey player. He doesn't throw booming checks, doesn't drop his gloves, doesn't rip off 100 MPH slap shots or run his yap. But you don't need to throw monster hits or punches to be hard to play against. You can bet the 22-year-old is tough to play against.
On Friday night, the Rockford IceHogs managed one shot on goal in the first period. Pysyk dominated the Amerks' end like Hakeem in the paint. Oncoming forwards with the puck were forced to either dump the puck into the corner or have it slapped away. After they dropped it against the boards, Pysyk pushed them off the puck or tapped it with his stick to partner Brayden McNabb. If an opponent did win a wall battle, they were in no position to make a quality pass or shot with it. When he won battles (most of the time), the 6-foot-1 D-man used the eyes subtly positioned in the back of his head to find streaking wingers.
After the first period, half the IceHogs roster looked like it wanted to throw its hands up and yell “No Mas!” People in the press box were double and triple checking. “Only one shot? Seriously?”
By the time it was over, Rockford only managed 24 shots and one flukey goal. The Amerks won their sixth game in a row and Pysyk had two assists and a First Star to his name. One of the helpers was on his D-partner McNabb's goal.
After the game, the young defenseman spoke more like he had just finished a good book than dominated a 4-1 win. At times his responses were hard to hear over teammates celebrating another win.
Pysyk will not say he is frustrated by the Sabres' new regime. He is not the type who would say something like that. Frustration with being sent up and down when he is Buffalo's second best puck possession defenseman would be reasonable. Fans are frustrated by it. Still, Pysyk will only discuss how he can improve.
“I'm just working on being stronger with the puck,” he said. “Playing with better body position when I do have the puck and being hard in the defensive zone. Sometimes I get a little bit soft and away from my details. So lots of things that I'm focusing on during this Olympic break and hopefully I can get back up at some point this year.”
Sending the former Edmonton Oil Kings' defenseman down to the AHL during the Olympic break is not, according to interim head coach Ted Nolan, an indication of how the organization sees him long term.
“I believe he has the potential to be a captain or one of the leaders on this team down the road,” Nolan told WGR last week.
“That is a very nice thing to hear,” Pysyk said of Nolan's praise. “It is good motivation to keep doing the same things, being a consistent player and consistent guy off the ice. I'm sure that is a long way down if it is going to happen.”
Amerks' head coach Chadd Cassidy, who is tagged with the duty of being half hockey coach, half life coach for young players, explained how Pysyk has grown during the ups and downs.
“He has always been good at getting pucks out and has a great stick,” Cassidy said. “I see a lot more confidence running the power play than we saw last year. He looks like he fits in there as opposed to not being as comfortable with it last year. Every aspect of his game keeps getting better. There isn't a huge difference, it's just that everything is growing incrementally.”
Cassidy's club played again the next night. They shutout the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Their hot streak hasn't simply been a product of Pysyk. It been aided greatly by McNabb's terrific power play scoring ability, the return of Rasmus Ristolainen, leadership from Drew Bagnall, Johan Larsson's hard defensive play and Kevin Porter's speed and scoring skill.
Pysyk's play, however, means more to the long-term plan. He is a major part of the rebuild. And his play despite the bizarre circumstances can give Sabres fans a little more confidence that someday their team will return to being a contender. Maybe even a contender led by him as their captain.