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Paetsch proving to be Buffalo's unsung hero

Paetsch has quickly grown into a fan favorite in Buffalo. His simple yet smart approach is a big reason the Sabres' power play is back on track, clicking at 30% over the last 11 games. (MikeLynaugh.com Photo)

BUFFALO (LGS) — The Buffalo Sabres' run at the Stanley Cup last season came to end because of a rash of injuries to key personnel, most notably injuries to their starting defenseman. With each passing injury the Sabres reached deeper into their organizational depth chart to find a replacement. The last of these replacements was a 23-year-old rookie defenseman from Leroy, Saskatchewan named Nathan Paetsch.

First it was Rory Fitzpatrick — the Sabres' regular "seventh" defenseman last season — who entered the lineup to replace an injured Dmitri Kalinin. The Sabres next called upon Jeff Jillson and Doug Janik to skate in place of the injured Teppo Numminen and Henrik Tallinder. Finally, in game seven of the Eastern Conference finals against the Carolina Hurricanes, the Sabres called in Paetsch to fill in for an injured Jay McKee, who was lost due to an infected cut on his leg.

Prior to that playoff game in Carolina, Paetsch had appeared in only one NHL game. His NHL debut came on January 7, 2006 against the New Jersey Devils. The young defenseman made a solid contribution that night, assisting on Maxim Afinogenov's power-play goal to open the game's scoring. The Sabres, however, fell to the Devils 3-2.

Despite his lack of experience, he played an extremely solid playoff game, logging over 12 minutes of ice time. 

Following the conclusion of the season, Fitzpatrick, Jillson and Janik all left the Sabres organization, leaving the door open for Paetsch to secure a roster spot this fall. After a solid training camp, he had finally earned a spot on the 23-man roster. Sabres' head coach Lindy Ruff explained to Paetsch that last season Fitzpatrick played in 56 games as the team's seventh defenseman and that he had to be ready to play at any time.

Heeding Ruff's advice, Paetsch has frequently jumped into the lineup and has been an amazing contributor to the team's success this season. He has played in 44 of the Sabres' 60 games, recording 16 assists and a +4 rating. In comparison, Fitzpatrick played 56 games last season, recording just nine points and a woeful -18 rating.

Paetsch's play has been so steady this season that his coach added considerably to his playing time and responsibilities. Ruff even moved him up to forward for the January 30 contest against the Boston Bruins just to keep him in the lineup when the Sabres' blueline appeared to be fully healthy.

A few games prior to that game, Ruff inserted him onto the first power-play unit in the hope that his good decision-making skills with the puck would invigorate the team's inept power play. It was a move that would revive the Sabres' special teams.

The role of power-play quarterback is nothing new to Paetsch. In juniors and with Rochester, he successfully quarterbacked strong power-play units. His impact on the Sabres' special teams was immediate. In the last 11 games, including last night's 6-3 win over the Philadelphia Flyers, the Sabres have scored on 16 of their 53 power-play attempts, or 30.2%. In the 10 games prior, the team only connected on five of 47 attempts, or 10.6%.

Making the long trip to Buffalo

Paetsch traveled a long and winding road to the NHL. Along the way he played four seasons of junior hockey, was drafted by two different NHL teams, and played three additional minor-league seasons before getting his first professional cup of coffee.

A native of Leroy, Saskatchewan, Paetsch was born on March 30, 1983. He played his junior hockey with the Moose Jaw Warriors of the Western Hockey League (WHL). He joined the Warriors at the age of 16 for a couple of games at he end of the 1998-1999 campaign. During the 1999-2000 season, Paetsch's first full year with Moose Jaw, he scored nine goals and added 35 assists.

His game began to blossom during the 2000-2001 campaign. He dominated the WHL, scoring eight goals and adding a team-high 54 assists. Paetsch earned Moose Jaw Defenseman of the Year and playoff-MVP honors.
 
In June of 2001, the Washington Capitals rewarded his excellent play by drafting him in the second round (58th overall) of the 2001 NHL Entry Draft. The scouts described the young defenseman as a hard worker, an intelligent playmaker, a good skater and an excellent passer.

He returned to Moose Jaw for the next two seasons, posting solid numbers with 52 and 54 points respectively. During the playoffs in 2003, he scored three goals and 10 assists in 13 games. In 2003 he earned second-team WHL All-Star honors for his play during his final junior season. Paetsch finished his career as the second-leading scorer in Moose Jaw Warrior history with 225 points.

In spite of his continued solid play at the junior level, the Capitals declined to offer him a professional contract, thereby making Paetsch available for the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. The Capital's management felt that he struggled with the physical nature of hockey and was not sound defensively. At the time, there was speculation that this decision would come back to haunt the Capitals.

The Sabres drafted him with the fifth selection of the seventh round (202nd overall pick) in the 2003 draft. The Sabres and Paetsch reached a contract two weeks into 03-04 season. The team immediately assigned the 20-year-old to Rochester. There, the discarded Washington prospect's career began to take flight under the tutelage of coach Randy Cunneyworth.

Paetsch showed his versatility by playing both forward and defense during his rookie season, while scoring 10 points. The following season saw him play defense in all 80 of the Amerks' games, scoring four goals and 19 assists. The biggest changes in his game were his willingness to play a more physical brand of hockey and his play in the defensive zone. During that season, he collected 150 penalty minutes and was an excellent +15.

In his final minor-league season, Paetsch became the player that the scouts anticipated when the Washington Capitals first drafted the young man from rural Saskatchewan. Last season, he finished fourth on the Amerks in scoring with 11 goals and 39 assists. He quarterbacked the power play, continued to play physically and was solid in the defensive zone. For his efforts he was voted Rochester's MVP and a starter in the AHL All-Star game.

It has been a long road to the NHL for Paetsch, a man who earned the nickname "Patches" for his ability to fill in at any position. His steady play for the Sabres this season has been instrumental in helping Buffalo weather significant injuries while maintaining the team's strong overall play and position on top of the league.

It hasn't been the perfect road, but Paetsch has silenced his critics along the way and he should remain a staple of the Blue and Gold defense for many years to come.

By Alan Sheldon, LGS Columnist
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