|In his final junior season, Mike Weber put together six goals and 28 assists and finished a plus-11, numbers which impressed the Sabres enough to draft the defenseman with their second pick in 2006. WATCH Weber video
More than one Buffalo Sabres
fan has watched Pittsburgh Penguins
bruising defenseman Brooks Orpik
, a Buffalo-area native, and thought, "Why can't we get a D-man like that?"
It appears their question, perhaps their prayer, has been answered in Mike Weber, a Pittsburgh-area native who was the No. 57 pick in the 2006 Entry Draft.
Hmm … perhaps the NHL should go back to the days of territorial rights?
Weber, 20, is a defensive defenseman who combines low point totals with high penalty minutes and is usually strong in the plus/minus category.
Weber played four games for the Sabres early last season and dressed for Buffalo's final 12 games. In those 16 games, Weber was plus-12. Only Jason Pominville (plus-16) and Derek Roy (plus-13), Buffalo's top two scorers, ranked higher.
Weber spent most of last season patrolling the blue line for the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League, where he had a goal and 13 assists and 178 penalty minutes. He was minus-8 for the Amerks, the first season he was in negative numbers since his first two junior seasons in Windsor, when he played on a weak squad.
Weber was in Buffalo's development camp in early July and again impressed management. He'll be at training camp in September, bidding for one of the jobs on Buffalo’s defense. Sabres management would like to see him make the team just as much as Weber wants that.
"Camp was really good," Weber said. "I've had a pretty good summer because, since we didn't make the playoffs, I've had extra time to work on things that needed attention. I felt really good at camp. It was my second time there and I was a little more comfortable this year. I knew what to expect and it was my turn to help out the younger guys who were just drafted."
Weber's positive attitude and rapid development haven't surprised Sabres pro scout Jon Christiano.
"When we drafted him, we were told he has a burning desire to play in the NHL, and we have seen nothing to make us disagree with that statement," Christiano said.
"That's a nice thing to hear," Weber said. "You have to develop faster because everyone wants to play in the NHL and I don't want to be in minors. I want to play with the best. Getting into 16 games last year showed me what I need to know and what I need to do."
Weber said he is a vastly improved player from the one who broke into the NHL against the Florida Panthers last Oct. 26.
"My first NHL game was in Florida and it was kind of surreal for me," Weber said. "It was a dream come true, and I was more awestruck than anything. I couldn't get over the players that I was playing with and against, some great NHL players. I was a lot more comfortable in my second game. Playing most of the season in the AHL helped me a lot. There I was in a situation where I played a lot of minutes in every situation. Hockey is a game of confidence and my confidence grew through the season.
"I was partnered most of the season with Andrej Sekera and in most of my games with Buffalo. He's more of an offensive defenseman. He has great hands and feet. I did the crashing and the banging. I'm more physical. I just got the puck into his hands or one of the forwards. We communicate very well, and I just try to keep it simple."
Weber credited Sabres assistant coach James Patrick, a fine NHL defenseman for two decades, with helping him learn the pro game. It hasn't been as easy as it may appear, Weber said.
"James was always pushing me and I'm grateful because I want to be the best I can be," Weber said. "No matter how many minutes I played or in what situations, he was there with advice and encouragement and challenges. He's always there to help me out and teach me the little things that can make me a better player.
"It was tough at first to see first-hand the difference in the speed of the game from juniors to the AHL to the NHL. Everything at this level is quicker and more precise. James had us doing over-speed training, making us go as fast as we can and turn as fast as we can. It's tough for a defenseman breaking into the NHL. It's not just tough for younger players, it's tough for older players, too."
Weber started skating in Pittsburgh when he was 3, before his family moved to Colorado, where he learned to play hockey. His family later returned to Pittsburgh, where Weber played for the Jr.-B Penguins. He was drafted into the OHL and played 3½ seasons before he was traded to the Barrie Colts midway through 2006-07. Weber helped the Colts win the OHL Central Division and defeat Toronto and Brampton in the playoffs before falling to Peterborough in the Eastern Conference finals.
"Going to Windsor was a turning point for me," Weber said. "I got on the right track with my support system and my billet family, Steve Ott's parents. Now I spend my summers in Windsor. Steve has been a good leader for me and helped me grow up faster. His father, Butch, has me working most days on his speedboats. He won the Canadian national championship last year and he's getting ready to defend it this summer.
"I never get in those boats -- too fast," Weber said. "I like the career I have."