When Kyle Criscuolo made the decision to sign with the Sabres as a free agent during the offseason, it wasn't because he felt he had an open door to an NHL roster spot. What he did know after speaking with general manager Jason Botterill, however, was that he'd have an honest chance to work his way up.
"I think everyone was pretty honest with me," Criscuolo said. "They didn't promise me anything. They said you can try to earn your spot and work your way up from Rochester, be one of the top nine guys in Rochester and then try to make it to the next level and earn your way up."
As it turns out, proving himself didn't take long at all. Criscuolo earned his first career recall to the NHL on Thursday morning and practiced with the Sabres ahead of their trip to Detroit, where they'll face his former organization on Friday night.
Video: Sabres Now (11/16/17)
Criscuolo received word of his recall following Rochester's 3-0 win over Binghamton on Wednesday night. Sabres coach Phil Housley was on hand for that game, and said he saw the same attributes that left a mark when Criscuolo was with the Sabres in the preseason.
"It's his competitive nature," Housley said. "His willingness to get into tough areas, go down low and win puck battles against tougher guys, using his speed and the energy he brought. I thought it really rubbed off well on our bench and on our coaching staff."
Criscuolo's story is a familiar one in today's NHL, an undersized forward who used hard work and grit to pave a path to professional hockey. He went undrafted prior to spending four years at Harvard, the final two of which he spent captaining the Crimson.
It was during his collegiate career that Criscuolo began to think a shot at the NHL might be on the table. In his final two seasons at Harvard, he combined for 80 points in 71 games.
"The caliber of players I was playing with in college and knowing they were going to be making the next step to pro hockey, NHL, I sort of felt like I could play with these guys and I could keep up," he said. "Certain guys I was playing against, I felt like I can do it. I didn't know what was going to come of it, but I was definitely motivated and wanted to keep going."
He signed a minor league deal with Detroit upon finishing his career at Harvard and played four games with their AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids to conclude the 2015-16 season. As a rookie last season, he scored 41 points (17+24) for Grand Rapids and won the Calder Cup.
Making the decision to leave Grand Rapids during the offseason was admittedly difficult, he said, but Botterill and the Buffalo front office won him over with their message and their preparedness.
"They understood how I play and how I want to play," Criscuolo said. "I think they did a good job of knowing what kind of player and person I am and what I want to bring to the team. I think what they said to me was pretty convincing that they want to put me in spots they think I can be effective."
In 14 games with Rochester this season, Criscuolo's 11 points (5+6) tie him with C.J. Smith for the Amerks' team lead.
Whether or not Criscuolo makes his NHL debut in Detroit remains to be seen. Housley said his status will be a game-time decision, but the fact that he practiced on a line with Jordan Nolan and Zemgus Girgensons while Matt Moulson and Nicholas Baptiste skated as extras should bode well for the possibility.
For now, he's just trying not to get caught up in the emotion of what's been a long journey.
"I think it's obviously a long road to get here," he said. "I'm excited to be here. I'm going to think about it maybe in a couple weeks. But right now, I've got to focus on the game tomorrow."
With Falk and Fedun absent, Sabres recall Nelson
Video: HOUSLEY After Practice
Buffalo's injuries woes on defense continued Thursday, with Justin Falk and Taylor Fedun both absent from practice. Housley said that Falk's absence was simply a maintenance day, but Fedun is expected to miss six-to-eight weeks with a lower-body injury.
Fedun sustained his injury during Buffalo's game in Pittsburgh on Tuesday. He played just one shift in the third period but remained on the bench for the remainder of the game.
"He was trying to work through it, and he wanted to be part of the team," Housley said. "He tried to gut it out there for a little bit but it just didn't happen for him."
With Zach Redmond also nursing an injury in Rochester, the Sabres recalled Casey Nelson along with Criscuolo on Thursday morning. Nelson impressed in a short stint with the Sabres after signing as an undrafted free agent at the end of the 2015-16 season, and he was in the lineup for Buffalo's season opener last season before ultimately spending the bulk of his year in Rochester.
Nelson has four points (1+3) in 14 games with the Amerks this season.
"I'm just trying to round [my game] out," Nelson said. "I've got a few good attributes to my game with my skating, so basically it's just trying to be more solid all around, defensively especially and also getting back and getting pucks. I think that's the biggest part of the game now, getting pucks out smooth and getting the forwards up the ice."
Lines at practice
67 Benoit Pouliot - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 21 Kyle Okposo
9 Evander Kane - 15 Jack Eichel - 23 Sam Reinhart
25 Seth Griffith - 22 Johan Larsson - 29 Jason Pominville
17 Jordan Nolan - 28 Zemgus Girgensons - 51 Kyle Criscuolo
26 Matt Moulson - 13 Nicholas Baptiste
6 Marco Scandella - 8 Casey Nelson
19 Jake McCabe - 82 Nathan Beaulieu
4 Josh Gorges - 93 Victor Antipin