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Rookie defenseman Myers comes up big for Sabres

NHL.com @NHL

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) -Tyler Myers long ago became accustomed to all the jokes and string bean nicknames that go with being the tallest player on just about every hockey team he's played on.

At 6-foot-8 - and that's before Myers puts on skates - the Buffalo Sabres rookie defenseman has been called everything from "Lurch" to simply "The Big Guy." And every day he enters the Sabres locker room, Myers gets a familiar "How's the weather up there?" greeting from assistant equipment manager George Babcock.

"It could be cloudy or a blizzard down here," Babcock said with a laugh. "But up there it's always sunshine."

That's as much a reference to Myers' sunny disposition as it is to how much the 20-year-old is enjoying his first NHL season.

Call him what you want, and he prefers the nickname "Big Easy," Myers' play has him standing head and shoulders above much of the pack in the running for the Calder Trophy given to the NHL rookie of the year.

"It's hard not to hear those whispers about the Calder and what not," Myers said. "You take it all in, but at the end of the day, you just have to focus on what you have to do here with the team. And I think I've done that for the most part."

That might be a big understatement for the NHL's second tallest player, who's one inch shorter than Boston captain Zdeno Chara.

With four days left in the regular season, Myers had 47 points to lead Sabres defensemen and rank fifth on the team. Among NHL rookies he was third in points and first in ice time, averaging a Sabres-leading 23:47.

Numbers aside, Myers has particularly drawn raves for his smooth skating style and effortless stick-handling, which belie his size and age. Put together, Myers has skewed the learning curve that has defensemen requiring more time to develop than forwards.

"He's very fluid," Sabres general manager Darcy Regier said. "It's highly unusual to see someone this mobile at that size and age. I don't know who you would point to either in the past or present like that."

The Sabres were so impressed in scouting Myers that they took the unusual step of trading up one spot to ensure they could select him 12th overall in the 2008 draft.

Though the Sabres had no expectations of when Myers would be ready to play in the NHL, the timetable was accelerated after the defenseman had a breakout season last year. He helped Canada win the World Junior championship in January and then played a key role in leading Kelowna of the Western Hockey League to the Canadian Memorial Cup championship game, which the Rockets lost to Windsor, Ontario.

Last summer, Kelowna coach Ryan Huska had an inkling Myers wasn't coming back for his final junior season. What Huska never envisioned was how well he'd play at the NHL level.

"Everybody in our organization knew he was going to be a special player," Huska said. "I just think he surprised a lot of people with how quickly he's been able to do that."

Myers' ability was apparent in the regular-season opener against Montreal, when he appeared trapped in the corner of his zone by a forechecking Canadiens forward. Rather than panic, Myers deftly used his quick feet and long reach to spin away from trouble.

Two weeks later, he scored his first NHL goal in a 6-3 win over the New York Islanders. On March 10, Myers had a career-best four-point game, scoring a goal and adding three assists in 5-3 win over Dallas.

He's the youngest NHL defenseman to have 40 points since Bryan Berard did it with the Islanders during the 1996-97 season. And the Sabres are 28-7-1 when Myers registers a point.

Goaltender Ryan Miller is regarded as the Sabres' MVP in leading the team to winning the Northeast Division title and ending a two-year playoff drought. Myers might not rank far behind.

"He's not only one of the top rookies, he's one of the better defensemen in the league," teammate Toni Lydman said. "I knew he was good, but I didn't know how good. Then it became clear pretty quickly that this guy's for real."

Myers and his family moved to the hockey hotbed of Calgary, Alberta, when he was 10 years old, but he was first drawn to the sport while growing up in Houston and his father, Paul, took him to a Houston Aeros game when he was 6.

"I fell in love with the Aeros right away. I was just entranced by the game," said Myers, whose father played hockey in college. "We were buying equipment the next day."

The only drawback to Myers' development were the debilitating effects he'd endure each time he had a growth spurt. He was 6 feet tall by the time he was 12, and grew another 5 inches over the next four years.

With each inch, Myers had to become accustomed to his new size, whether it was seeking bigger equipment, longer sticks or finding himself tripping over his feet. The spurts also would make him feel fatigued.

"I could hardly get through a game. It was a two-week period where I felt like I lost my coordination. I had no energy," Myers said. "Sometimes I would hate being as tall as I am. But I always knew it would stop at some point."

After growing one more inch last year, Myers figures he's as tall as he's going to get.

There's still no limit on his potential.

"The onus is on our organization and ultimately Tyler to make sure that this process of growing continues," Regier said. "So this is really just a start."

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