By Bill Hoppe
The focus, at least for the first month, was to embrace a “shutdown mentality,” Tyler Myers said. That meant the star Sabres defenseman, one of the NHL’s top puck-rushers, took a defense-first approach beside new partner Robyn Regehr. The offense could wait.
Last season, fresh off a terrific rookie campaign, Myers endured a brutal start. A year ago today he had three goals, yet was a stunning minus-12, arguably the league’s worst defenseman.
Now, a year later, he has zero tallies and is plus-2 heading into tonight’s tilt against the Calgary Flames at the First Niagara Center.
“I didn’t want the start I had last year,” Myers said Thursday after practice. “I think I did the right thing this year coming in with the mindset of playing really solid defense. I think that’s exactly what I needed to do this year, especially with the start I had last year. Coming in, making sure I’m taking care of my own end first was a huge part.
“At the same time, I think now that I’ve started to find my rhythm defensively, I can try to start taking a little bit more risks offensively.”
That was evident in Wednesday’s 3-2 loss to Philadelphia, when Myers, back beside Andrej Sekera, his partner much of last season, showcased some dynamic offensive skills again. He shook off a rough few minutes and began moving the puck supremely, creating scoring chances while skating a season-high 26:36.
With the defensive part of Myers’ game strong, Ruff wanted to jumpstart the offensive side. The 21-year-old compiled a gaudy 21 goals and 85 points in his first two seasons. But he has just three assists through 11 games.
“We wanted to get him with our offensive lines and get involved in the offense,” Ruff said, “and I think you saw (Wednesday) how he had two prime scoring chances himself, Andrej scored. We’d really like (Myers) to have that (offensive) makeup, that’s the makeup that got him to rookie of the year. It’s the most dangerous makeup for him.
“I thought (Wednesday), if you throw out the first five minutes, he made some good progress in that game.”
Myers added: “If I focus and continue to play like I did over the last 50 minutes, I think I’ll be just fine and the points will come.”
The points rarely materialized in 10 games beside Regehr, a tough, stay-at-home defender. The No. 1 tandem played well, although Myers lost much of his aggressiveness.
Ruff recently said Myers had some “indecision” in his game, “looked tired” and wasn’t getting to places he had before.
“It definitely affected my mindset,” Myers explained. “Taking out last game against Philly, I think the games before that, I think whenever Robyn and I went out there our mindset was to shut the other teams down, as opposed to going on the offensive and trying to score goals.”
The Myers and Sekera tandem is definitely offensive. In fact, some believe the duo’s too slick. Sekera’s also a first-rate puck-handler and isn’t afraid to pinch. There’s little balance, no Regehr-type to anchor things.
But Myers snapped out of last season’s funk with Sekera, and the two performed well together for several months.
“I feel very comfortable with Andrej,” Myers said. “We talk a lot off the ice. I think last year there was a hesitation trying to put us together because we’re both always trying to jump. But I think (Wednesday) we were very good defensively. I think we’re starting to figure out how to play with each other, how to back each other up.”
That will only help Myers’ development. Ruff has said a Norris Trophy could be in his future. To become the league’s best defenseman, Myers will have to be elite defensively and offensively.
“There’s no such thing as being just an offensive defenseman because if you can’t defend, you have a tough time playing,” Ruff said. “You watched his penalty killing, he did an excellent job killing (Wednesday) against the big boys, and doing that at a man disadvantage. So he can defend.
“And there will be a time he will probably be equal on both sides of the puck. But his focus, short-term here, is we want him involved more on the offensive side.”
A day after allowing three goals on 11 shots in just 6:23 of action, Sabres goalie Ryan Miller was out on the ice early for practice.
“I’m just trying to get rid of last night,” Miller said. “Not really focusing on anything, just go out and have a moment to myself before practice and reset.”
While Miller remained patient with the media, he was clearly growing perturbed at the questioning, at one point saying, “You’re going to start critiquing my practices now?”
Ruff, who acknowledged “you’re always concerned” about the goalie’s play, wouldn’t reveal if Miller or backup Jhonas Enroth would start tonight.
“That’s in a secret compartment in my office,” he joked
Ruff wants to start Enroth every third or fourth game. The rookie won his second nod two games and eight days ago. The Sabres also play Saturday in Ottawa.
Regehr, a Flames regular for 11 seasons, will face his former teammates for the first time since waiving his no-trade clause in June.
“Probably a little bit of nervous excitement,” Regehr said. “It’ll probably be a little awkward in warm-up, to go out there, to see that uniform with all those guys, most of them I played with.”