The start of 2005-06 season may have been the biggest hurdle in the now-propitious career of Buffalo Sabres center Derek Roy.
After scoring 19 points in 49 games as a rookie with Buffalo in 2003-04 and registering 61 points (45 assists) with the American Hockey League's Rochester Americans during the NHL lockout the following season, Roy failed to make the Sabres out of training camp when League play resumed in 2005. It was a devastating disappointment for the former Memorial Cup MVP, an award he earned after leading the Ontario Hockey League's Kitchener Rangers to the Memorial title in 2003.
"As a player, that was mentally tough to take," Roy told NHL.com. "Obviously, I was entering the season thinking I was going to make the team. But, at the same time, I'm looking at the roster and realizing that everyone but me had a one-way contract. I was the only guy with a two-way contract (with the Sabres and Americans), so it was pretty difficult going all out in training camp and, at the same time, knowing I could be sent back down. I suppose I realized there was a possibility of going down (to Rochester), but until it happened, I held out hope."
"I wouldn't say this year has been a turnaround for me, but more of a learning experience."
-- Derek Roy
When Roy was informed he would join the Sabres' minor-league affiliate to start the 2005-06 season, he simply rolled up his sleeves and decided to make the best of it.
"I just dealt with it and played some good games with the help of (then-assistant coach) Doug Houda and (Rochester coach) Randy Cunneyworth," Roy said. "I had a lot of support from my family and my friends. But Doug and Randy worked with me a lot and got me back up as quick as possible."
After collecting 20 points (seven goals) in just eight games in Rochester, Roy was again promoted to Buffalo on Nov. 3, 2005. He hasn't looked back since.
"It's funny, once you get that taste of the NHL, you never want to go back down," Roy said. "So, once I got called back up, I worked even harder at staying. I just wanted to showcase my talents that I showed during training camp. The NHL is a lot different than the AHL. The goaltending is that much better, the defensive zone and players in general are just so much better. It is a much faster game, you have to be quick and make even quicker decisions. I think the more you play, the more you start to feel comfortable and understand the speed of the game."
Speed is something that Roy knows all about.
"Generating more speed to your game comes from the off-ice conditioning in the summertime," Roy said. "That's when you really concentrate on your speed and quickness through plyometrics. Foot speed is also important. We'll do a lot of drills with the trainer on the team to help build the muscles needed to increase speed. I developed that speed over the offseason, in addition to working hard every day in practice. It's a matter of concentrating on what your feet are doing and just going out and getting it done."
In 70 games with the Sabres in 2005-06, Roy, who played on a line with center Chris Drury and feisty winger Mike Grier, scored 46 points (18 goals). He then racked up 15 points (five goals) in 18 playoff games.
"We had a good run for the Cup that season," Roy recalled. "It was a good season for me, personally, and a nice year for the organization." The Sabres were eliminated by the eventual Stanley Cup champions, the Carolina Hurricanes, in a thrilling seven-game series in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The loss of Drury and Danny Briere to free agency over the summer meant an even greater role for Roy at the start of the 2007-08 season. It was an opportunity he felt ready and willing to undertake.
"Lindy Ruff came up to me at training camp and said; 'Who's going to take the big draws for us?'," Roy said. "I wanted to put that burden on my shoulders. If late in the game, we needed to win a big draw, I wanted to be the one to bear down and work hard to get it done. Faceoffs are always a work in progress. Guys like (Rod) Brind-Amour and (Steve) Yzerman are so good at it because they've been in the League such a long time. They know what works and I just have to gain more experience to find my knack."
Among those players having taken at least 1,000 draws for Buffalo in 2006-07, Drury led the way with a 58.8 face-off winning percentage. Briere was second (49.6), Dainius Zubrus was third (49.1) and Roy, fourth (48.5). Roy did, however, lead the team in takeaways with 51 while finishing fifth on the team with 63 points (21 goals).
Roy, a second-round pick (32nd overall) of the Sabres in 2001, has certainly proven his ability in the circle this season. He leads the team with 1,333 faceoffs taken after 79 games and sports a respectable 51.1 winning percentage. He again leads the team in takeaways (45) and is also tied for the team lead in shorthanded goals (3). He is second in goals (31), assists (46) and points (77).
"I wouldn't say this year has been a turnaround for me, but more of a learning experience," Roy said. "Each year, you try to improve and become better as a player. If you're not getting better, you're getting worse, so I try to have positive summer workouts and enter each season mentally focused. Entering this season without Danny (Briere) and (Chris) Drury opened up a lot of doors and Coach provided me with more playing time (20:56 this season as compared to 18:27 last season). I've had a lot more time on the power-play and penalty-killing units and I think I've matured a lot over the season. Hopefully, I'll be able to improve my game even more."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.