|Chris Butler (Getty Images)
Chris Butler had played through pain before.
For the 23-year-old defenseman, that wasn’t the issue. But after sustaining his first extensive injury as a professional athlete last season, Butler simply wasn’t prepared to deal with its lingering complications.
Sidelined on December 3, 2009 with an ankle sprain – after getting tangled up with a Montreal forward in front of the net – Butler experienced a turning point in his season.
“For whatever reason I couldn’t regain the composure and the confidence I had,” he said.
At that time, Butler had played in all 25 games of the season, and was ranked second on the team in ice time with an average of 20:55 minutes per game, behind only rookie Tyler Myers
But after returning from the injury, his performance began to decline.
“I felt like my reads weren’t as good when I came back, my d-zone wasn’t as good,” he said. “I don’t know if I was tentative going into corners or what it was with the ankle injury… but I continued to get frustrated.
“It’s a tough injury to come back from. I talked to Rej [Andrej Sekera
] a little bit about it, he had the same thing the year before… for whatever reason they just seem to linger.”
By February Butler was split from his defense partner Craig Rivet, and as the Sabres neared the playoffs, he was forced to rotate with Sekera into the lineup.
“It’s kind of the old what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” he said. “It was certainly frustrating and disappointing watching the team play in the playoffs because everybody works hard during the season; whether you’re on the first line or as the seventh defenseman…. working hard to get back there and not be able to be a part of it is just really a helpless feeling.”
Which is why Butler has done everything he can during the offseason to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself. He worked with a therapist over the summer to help him rehab the ankle and began a rigorous summer training regiment. He also altered his approach to be more aggressive on the ice.
“I think I need to be more assertive with my reads. I need to be more confident in the plays I’m making and stop second guessing. If you’re going to pinch, pinch 100 percent – if you’re not, then back out,” he said. “I just need to stop being afraid of making mistakes. I think when I came back I was playing too tentative and worried about making errors when I had the puck instead of looking at it as an opportunity to make a play. I had to change my mindset and start to have fun again.”
He looks forward to Saturday’s preseason game against the Toronto Maple Leafs - where he will play alongside Drew Schiestel
- to begin to reestablish himself in the eyes of the coaching staff.
“I want to get back to playing at a consistent level. I want to be a part of special teams – whether it’s power play, penalty kill or whatever,” Butler said. “I want to be able to be out there in the last minute of the game and have the coach’s confidence to put me out there, and not worry about me being a liability. I’m looking to basically go out there and reprove myself and just show them I can play.
“The injury is behind me, I’ve learned from it and I think I’m a stronger person and a better player because of it… The fact that I know what it feels like to be the guy on the outside, it’s something that I never want to get back to. I don’t ever want to be sitting in the stands, watching games again or working out during games.
“If I go out there and play well and play with confidence… then hopefully things will take care of themselves.”