Ron Rolston has been around long enough to know that the one thing he should expect from rookies is inconsistency. They’ll be great one minute, head-shakingly bad the next, and the cycle will repeat.
Two of the coach’s most prominent first-year players illustrate that perfectly.
Mark Pysyk couldn’t have asked for a better start with the Rochester Americans. The defenseman scored during the season opener, which was also his professional debut. He regularly patrolled the point on the power play. Now he’s struggling to get in the lineup and has been scratched in three of the last eight games.
Jerome Gauthier-Leduc, meanwhile, had a beginning to forget. The blue-liner missed training camp with an injury. He slowly got better but didn’t earn a spot in the lineup until mid-November. Now he’s paired with the team’s top scorer and skating on the first power-play unit.
It wouldn’t be a shock if the roles reversed again for the Buffalo Sabres’ hopefuls.
“They’re going to make mistakes on a nightly basis,” Rolston said. “It’s just getting through that and understanding that it is a process. They’re not going to be where you want them next week or maybe the week after that. It’s going to take some time, but to date I think they’ve done a really good job where they’re at right now in the process.
“Once we get in the second half of the season, I think with those guys you’re really going to see the difference in just their maturity, the situations that they’re in ... the decisions that they make.”
Pysyk and Gauthier-Leduc are high on the Sabres’ list of defensive prospects. They were Buffalo’s first two picks in the 2010 NHL draft, with Pysyk going in the first round and Gauthier-Leduc in the third. After stellar junior careers, they’re dealing with ups and downs like typical first-year pros.
“It’s a little bit different here, obviously,” Pysyk said. “There’s a lot of bigger, stronger guys who are faster. The plays happen a lot quicker. I’ve just got to adjust to that every single day. I don’t think I’m used to that yet.”
Entering Saturday’s home game against Binghamton, Pysyk had played 26 times while putting up two goals, 10 points and a plus-3 rating. The former captain of the Edmonton Oil Kings averaged six goals and 39 points during his final two years in the Western Hockey League.
“I have all the confidence in the world that he’s going to be playing here in this arena on a regular basis with his leadership and his ability and how he carries himself,” Rolston said Friday in First Niagara Center. “He had a really good start, but again with all the young players it’s just trying to find that consistency over the course of a long season and not taking that for granted, basically, that every night you’re going to be in there. We have a lot of good defensemen back there, so a little bit of a rotation lately.”
Gauthier-Leduc was a point-producing machine in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He had at least 18 goals in each of his final three seasons, including personal records last year of 28 goals and 74 points in 62 games with Rimouski.
“Right now I am having more fun on the ice so I play better,” said Gauthier-Leduc, whose start was derailed by a lower-body ailment. “I didn’t make it to training camp, so the start of the season was pretty tough for me. I was not in the lineup even when I was fine.
“I think I grew up as a player and as a person with that, but right now I’m playing and just enjoying my time.”
Both players were known for their poise with the puck in juniors. Defenseman T.J. Brennan, who leads the Amerks in goals and points, has noticed that his blue-line partner, Gauthier-Leduc, retained that trait. Gauthier-Leduc entered Saturday night with two goals and five points in 15 games.
“He’s got a lot of skill and a ton of patience,” Brennan said. “He’s a first-year guy, and he’s got a lot of things to work and improve on, but I think we have a similar game and we can definitely help each other out.
“He’s got to focus on his own end first, and I’m trying to repeat and bang that in his head because that’s the most important thing. He’s a great kid and he’s a really good hockey player, too.”
The rookies are quick to share the tips they get from veterans like Brennan. It helps them deal with the highs and lows.
“You know what each other are going through, and you can talk and help each other out,” Pysyk said. “If you get tip or insight from one of the veterans, you can all share it with each other and help each other out. We’re working together.”