• 2009-10 Hartford Wolf Pack Watch
By Dan David, newyorkrangers.com
Mike Sauer can still see the play that ended his 2009-10 season after 42 games.
It happened during the second period of the Hartford Wolf Pack's Jan. 29 AHL game vs. the visiting Lowell Devils. It was a typical play, really, as Sauer prepared to take a Devils player into the boards with the kind of hit he routinely doled out to players in the Wolf Pack zone.
Only this time, the hit was just off-line. He came into the boards ahead of his intended target, missing the check by inches. It ended up as the last moment in what had been shaping up as a brilliant 2009-10 season.
"My left arm was up, and I hit in front of him, and my arm just went into the boards kind of awkwardly," Sauer remembered. "When something like that happens your heart just kind of sinks. I knew immediately that something was up, but I didn't think it would be as long of a rehab or as serious as it turned out to be."
Although the season was over, there was good news ahead for the 22-year-old defenseman.
"The injury wasn't nearly as severe as they (doctors) had first expected," said Sauer. "For the long term they said there was nothing there that would be hindering me down the road. So I'm very grateful.”
|Defenseman Mike Sauer, a 2005 Rangers second-round draft pick and tthree-year veteran at Hartford, prides himself in his defensive-zone work, particularly when it contributes to a win for his team. |
Prior to his shoulder injury, the 6-foot-3, 200-pounder had scored three goals and 12 assists in the first half of his third pro season. More important were his steady defensive contributions. That's because when it comes to blocking shots or shutting down opponents by coming through with key plays at key times, Sauer is the type of defenseman every NHL team craves.
"I guess I'd describe myself as somebody that's steady in the back end and that you can count on shift after shift," said Sauer. "I want to always be somebody who will play against the other team's top line as more of a shut-down guy, but who can also get pucks through, make good plays, make smart passes and contribute in that respect. And, especially on the penalty kill, I want to be blocking shots and doing stuff that can help the team win."
Sauer's injury was a tough break for the Pack, who missed the playoffs with a banged-up defense that was down to one regular at one point. Without the reliable Sauer in the lineup, Hartford lost a key component.
"I felt like I continued to improve this season, and I felt like my defensive game was still there," Sauer said. "I felt like I was getting shots on net, getting things through and doing the things that they asked of me. So I thought up to that point that things were going pretty well."
Gordie Clark, the Rangers' Director, Player Personnel, said it was particularly frustrating for the organization to see Sauer get hurt.
"He had really just got going, and he was playing great, but just when you don't expect it, (injury) happens again," Clark said. "But there's nothing you can do about it."
The season-ending shoulder injury has completely healed, and Sauer said he has "no limitations" as he spends this summer getting ready for the start of the Rangers' training camp in September.
Sauer is eager to return to training camp healthy and attempt to make it to the NHL. The biggest highlight of his five years in the organization so far was his first opportunity to play in the NHL -- a three-game stint late in March 2009 after he was called up from Hartford to replace an injured Michal Rozsival.
|Mike Sauer got his first NHL experience with the Rangers on March 24, 2009, against the Minnesota Wild at Madison Square Garden. His debut had a happy ending, as the Blueshirts won that game 2-1. |
Sauer's NHL debut, 2-1 win over Minnesota on March 24, 2009, at Madison Square Garden, immediately revealed the kind of player he could be. In that win over a Wild team featuring current Ranger Marian Gaborik
, he contributed one shot on goal, landed one hit, and blocked a shot. Two nights later at Atlanta, he was plus-1 with another shot and another hit.
"You get there and you see what it's all about," Sauer said of the NHL. "It's what you worked for your whole life, playing from a little guy on. And to get there, once you get that taste, you're still hungry for more. So there's always that motivation in the back of your head, whether you're playing in the season or you're going into a summer and you're training. You've just got to do whatever you can to get back there."
Getting called up to the Rangers in 2008-09 was a big step for Sauer, who had begun the season recovering from reconstructive knee surgery. He rejoined the lineup on Nov. 14, 2008, and went on to enjoy his finest AHL stretch with six goals and 23 points in 64 games. The stat that really told the story of his year, however, could be found in the plus-minus column. Sauer led the Pack that season with a remarkable plus-29. The second-highest player on the roster was plus-19.
The knee injury, suffered late in the 2007-08 season, and last year's shoulder injury were setbacks, but Sauer has shown great resiliency in bouncing back throughout his career. In his draft year of 2004-05, he was also hit by the injury bug, playing only 32 games for the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks because of a hip problem. That likely cost him his chance to be drafted in the first round, since NHL Central Scouting had ranked Sauer 22nd overall among North American skaters eligible for the draft.
A native of St. Paul, Minn., Sauer was no stranger to the pro hockey lifestyle even before he was drafted, because his older brother Kurt is a veteran of 357 NHL games. Both Kurt, who is nearly seven years older, and Mike chose to pursue their NHL dreams by playing major-junior hockey. Kurt played in Spokane, while Mike started his career as a teammate of current Ranger Brandon Dubinsky
with the Winterhawks, who took Sauer 84th overall in the WHL's 2003 draft.
Because of his draft-year injury, the Rangers were able to follow up the No. 12 overall selection of fellow defenseman Marc Staal
by getting Sauer at No. 40 overall in 2005. He rewarded the Blueshirts for their belief in him by coming back strong over his last two years of major-junior hockey with Portland and Medicine Hat, where he was traded with 32 games remaining in the 2006-07 season.
Sauer joined the Tigers just in time to play a key role in their run to the WHL championship and berth in the 2007 Memorial Cup final, where they fell to Vancouver. The long postseason was a valuable experience as Sauer prepared for his first season at Hartford. He stayed healthy again and had a solid rookie year at age 20.
Three years into his pro career, Sauer has already played 177 games for the Pack and factored into some key moments. This past season alone, he scored a game-winning goal on a power play to beat Lowell on Oct. 24, capped off a run of three goals in the second period's first 4:47 to bury Springfield on Dec. 30, and assisted on an OT winner on Jan. 10 at Providence.
The Rangers' 2010 training camp will be a proving ground for many top prospects on defense, including Sauer, who will have a chance to put the frustrating, injury-shortened 2009-10 season behind him as he takes another run at an NHL roster spot.
"Obviously, when you get injured like that, you're not happy by any means, but you can't change it" he said. "Injuries happen, but you've got to just keep pushing through and know that it's not the end and there's more to come. You've got to play every game like it's your last and try to make the most out of every day."
Clark is impressed by how Sauer's positive thinking has helped him make quick recoveries in the past and considers it one of the many encouraging things about his development so far.
"We have been really pleased with how he came off his other injuries and worked to get back into 100 percent shape," said Clark. "Both times when he was in this situation before, he got his game right back."