Nathan Paetsch is now thanking Buffalo Sabres assistant coach James Patrick. To keep Paetsch prepared for game action while inactive for Buffalo's first 10 games of the season, Patrick forced the Sabres rookie defenseman to skate with rubber bands attached to his legs or pulling a parachute in drills by himself after practices.
Looking back, the additional work was a blessing in disguise because Paetsch now has some big skates to fill with Henrik Tallinder's injury. Tallinder broke a bone in his forearm in the third period against the New York Islanders on October 26 and could be absent from the lineup from six to eight weeks.
"It's tough to lose a player like Henrik," said Paetsch. "He's one of the top defensemen in the league. But my job was to stay ready just in case something like that happened, so hopefully I can build off that start."
Paetsch's view of Tallinder's status among NHL blueliners isn't far from the truth. Tallinder's plus-10 rating is tied with Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom for the highest plus/minus rating among NHL defensemen, while his 20:45 of ice time per game was good for third on the Sabres.
"I'm just trying to step into the lineup and help the team take some of those minutes," Paetsch said. "I've got to just take baby steps right now.
"We have a good core group of defensemen. The five guys already in the lineup have played a lot of NHL games and have a lot of experience."
Paetsch took 19 shifts for almost 13 minutes of playing time against the Atlanta Thrashers on Saturday night. Making just his third career start at the NHL level, he was used strictly in even-strength situations with Brian Campbell as a defensive partner.
"I thought he did a really nice job of keeping things simple," said Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff. "He was very effective a couple of times joining the rush and he had no troubles defensively.
"If you look at the number of shifts he had and the number of times he was involved offensively for us, he fit in very well."
Listed at just six-foot, 201 lbs, the defenseman from LeRoy, Saskatchewan is often times categorized as an offensive-oriented player due to his slight build and high-skill set.
But according to forward Paul Gaustad, who competed against Paetsch in the Western Hockey League and was his teammate with the Rochester Americans for two seasons, the 23-year-old defenseman can offer much more in other areas besides the offensive zone.
"He's a skilled d-man, but he's also really hard nosed," said Gaustad. "He's not afraid to drop the gloves in order to defend a teammate and is just a solid, two-way defenseman.
"He'll do really well on this team and in this town because he's a blue collar kind of guy that will never give up."