Being a shut-down, stay-at-home defenseman isn’t a flashy job, but every NHL hockey team needs at least one if it wants to make the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Coyotes have a good one in Kurt Sauer, the first unrestricted free agent they snagged in 2008.
“It’s certainly not the most glamorous position to play, but you know what, I don’t like the spotlight too much anyway, so being a shut-down defenseman in this league fits my personality perfectly,” Sauer said. “If I was trying to be a goal scorer, I probably wouldn’t have even made it to college. So I found a role that I’m good at and this is my role here.”
My job is to get the puck to players and make them look better and to make the goaltender look better,” Sauer said. “If everyone else on my team does well, I look good because that means I’m doing my job. - Kurt Sauer
After trading defensemen Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton to the Florida Panthers for center Olli Jokinen during the 2008 NHL Draft in June, Coyotes General Manger Don Maloney knew the team needed to add depth on the blue line. That’s why he immediately targeted Sauer, who played the past three-plus seasons with the Colorado Avalanche, and offered him a four-year contract just a few hours into the free-agent signing period.
“I feel like I’m fitting in good,” Sauer said after about a month into his first regular season with Phoenix. “It’s a great group of guys here and everything is going good. I’m happy here and this city is great for me and my family. It seems like it’s pretty easygoing and the weather is great. You can’t beat it anywhere. This is a good family spot for us.”
|Coyotes defenseman Kurt Sauer (left) defends against Eric Belanger of the Minensota Wild on Nov. 1, 2008. (AP Photo/Paul Connors) |
The Coyotes coaching staff has been very pleased with Sauer’s performance. Playing with Zbynek Michalek, the pair has been extremely stingy against the better players in the league. Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, for instance, was limited to just a few quality scoring chances and did not score a goal against the Coyotes when the Capitals came to town in October thanks in great part to Sauer and Michalek.
“They’re playing very well together,” Associate Coach Ulf Samuelsson said. “They’re smart with their angles, good with their sticks and we’re very happy with that pairing.”
Maloney also has been pleased with Sauer, the first unrestricted free agent he courted during the summer.
“I truly believed he could bring us exactly what he’s been bringing us,” Maloney said, “and I’m very, very happy with what he’s bringing us. He’s a very safe, reliable, steady influence on the ice.”
Michalek has enjoyed playing alongside Sauer.
“He’s a guy who has been in the league for a long time and he’s got a lot of experience,” Michalek said. “I can always count on him. We’ve got pretty good chemistry.”
Ballard was a popular player in Phoenix, but the Coyotes parted with him as the price to pay to land Jokinen, and then they quickly turned to Sauer. Asked if he felt any pressure to take Ballard’s place on any level, Sauer said he did not.
“I don’t compare myself to other guys that were here before me,” Sauer said. “The fans here are great, and it sounds like Keith was pretty special to the fans and he was a big part of things when we played against them. I don’t know if you can replace a guy like that. And I’m not the same type of player as him. It’s a tough situation, but comparing us is like comparing apples and oranges.”
Sauer comes from an athletic family. His father, Curt, was a pitcher in the Minnesota Twins organization. His oldest brother, Craig, played linebacker and on special teams for the Minnesota Vikings and the Atlanta Falcons. A second older brother, Kent, was drafted by the Nashville Predators in 1998. And his younger brother Michael is currently playing for the New York Rangers’ American Hockey League affiliate in Hartford.
One of Sauer’s two sisters also was into sports, especially basketball, when she was younger.
“We had a lot of fun when we were kids,” Sauer said. “We didn’t have to go too far to find a game, that’s for sure. And it was competitive, especially at the dinner table, but it was always friendly competitions and there were always rules. Even when we fought with each other we always made sure we had ground rules and that we stuck to them. You hear about brothers going overboard with each other, but I never felt that we went overboard. I can’t remember punching or hitting my brothers, it was always just wrestling matches.”
|Coyotes defenseman Kurt Sauer (left) makes a play on Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks on October 15, 2008. (Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images) |
With five siblings, Sauer remembers his childhood home in Sartell, Minn., as a busy place. Because his parents used the seniority system when it came to bedroom assignments, Sauer shared a room with at least one brother until he was a junior in high school.
“But you know what, I wouldn’t have had it any other way,” Sauer said with a smile. “That’s why I make my sons share a room.”
All of Sauer’s immediate family members are based within 30 minutes of the house in which they grew up. He said his solid family life helped mold his character.
“We always had fun, but the big thing for me was when I was told to do something you did it and if it wasn’t right you did it over again,” Sauer said. “That work ethic came from my parents. When they told me to do the dishes after dinner or breakfast or whatever, there was a certain way they were to be done and that’s the way we did it. My mom always told us, ‘If there’s something worth doing it’s worth doing it right.’ And I think that goes for school and lots of other things, too. If you’re going to put forth the effort, you might as well do it the best you can.”
When you’re a shut-down, stay-at-home defenseman in the NHL, doing your best means keeping opponents from scoring goals. Some say it’s a thankless job, like being an offensive lineman on a football team. Sauer can see that comparison, and it’s OK by him.
“That’s the thing when you’re a stay-at-home defenseman, you’re not going to be contributing a lot on the other end, but when you do, the boys notice it for sure,” Sauer said. “And that’s as much fun as anything. If I score a goal, the boys just hoot and holler. They just love it. “
But with four goals in 288 NHL games entering 2008-09, Sauer knows that’s not going to happen very often. And that’s also OK by him.
“My job is to get the puck to players and make them look better and to make the goaltender look better,” Sauer said. “If everyone else on my team does well, I look good because that means I’m doing my job.”