ROCHESTER (LGS) — Michael Funk may be tall but he admittedly has some ways to go before reaching the NHL on a full-time basis. At 6-foot-4, the Rochester Americans' sophomore defender is one of the tallest players in the AHL. And rest assured he uses that size to his advantage.
"He utilizes his size with his reach," said Amerks' head coach Randy Cunneyworth.
It's a sentiment that Amerks' goaltender Adam Dennis agrees with.
"He's a big guy, with good size and reach," Dennis added. "He's got good, soft hands and he makes a good first pass."
However, Cunneyworth and Funk both agree that the area he needs the most improvement in is his strength.
"I think he could assert himself a little bit more (physically)," Cunneyworth stated. "We've seen signs of it at times. He's even dropped the gloves a couple of times. He could be a bit like Chris Pronger if he got bigger."
Indeed, those are lofty expectations for the Sabres' second-round draft pick from the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.
"I do need to get stronger," said the man who wears number 4 with the Amerks. "I think through hard work and maturity it will happen."
Funk, a native of Abbotsford, British Columbia, got his start in hockey after watching a friend play.
"One of my best buddies played in a league, so I'd go watch him play from time-to-time," Funk recalled after a morning practice. "The more I watched, the more interested I became. As I got older I got better and better, so I quit playing soccer and softball to concentrate on hockey."
The move paid off for Funk, and the Portland Winter Hawks of the Western Hockey League eventually drafted him. Funk then spent the 2002-03 through 2005-06 seasons developing his game.
"We had some good times," Funk recalled. "We never made a deep run in the playoffs, but I had the same coach for all four years and he really helped me develop as a player to get myself to this level."
In 280 WHL contests, Funk tallied 23 goals and 98 assists, which was good for 121 points.
The pro-game has brought its share of highs and lows for the blueliner. Making his NHL debut against the Ottawa Senators was definitely the high, and the injuries and poor play of this year's Amerks squad have brought the lows.
"It's not what we expected," Funk said with the Amerks in the midst of riding a ten game losing streak when the interview was conducted. "The main thing is everyone is sticking together. Eventually, something has to change"
As for his NHL debut, Funk recalled the lessons he learned. "I learned so much by watching guys like Brian Campbell and Jaroslav Spacek.
"It was so exciting; I got a chance to play with limited ice time."
Despite the limited ice time, Funk picked up a pair of assists in his five games with the big club.
"The first one came off a draw," explained Funk. "I sent a pass to Spacek who launched a one-timer. It might have gotten tipped. The second was a breakout pass to Danny Briere," Funk said with a smile. "He knew what to do with it from there."
Having experienced a handful of games in the NHL last season, Funk prepared himself to start this year in Buffalo with the Sabres. His play in the NHL preseason opened the eyes of many media pundits and fans in Buffalo.
"It was my goal to start in Buffalo," Funk said. "Obviously, it didn't work out for me quite yet. I'm just hoping to get better with each year and get back up there."
However, injuries slowed Funk's progress in the early part of the season as he missed nine games between November 2 and November 23 with a groin injury.
"I don't think the injuries have helped me," Funk said outside the Amerks' dressing room. "They're starting to feel better now, and I'm playing through it."
As for what he does off the ice, there aren't many crazy stories. However, there does appear to be some confusion as to who rules the ice in NHL 2008 contests between Funk, Dennis, Drew Larman, Stefan Meyer, and Dylan Hunter on XBOX 360.
When told that Dennis said that he was the victorious one: "Oh, it's definitely me," Dennis said with a smile. "Larmy (Larman) gives me a run every now and then, but I almost always win!"
When told of Dennis comments, Funk looked a little surprised.
"I don't know about that one," the blueliner said. "'Hunts' and I rule when we play two-on-two. He (Dennis) does ok when we play one-on-one, but I wouldn't say he's the best!"
What won't be argued is that Funk is close to making it to the NHL on a full-time basis. As he matures physically and improves, Funk will eventually make the leap into the NHL where he should contribute for the Sabres. Perhaps then, the XBOX games will resume in Buffalo ... just with more money on the line.