Sabres fans will be thrilled to know that Tyler Myers is happy with his game these days. Granted, the standard is low. Myers was horrible and out of shape when the NHL lockout ended in January. He was benched for two games in February.
Now, at the start of spring, one month after Lindy Ruff’s firing, the 23-year-old defenseman has finally reached the point where you can characterize his play as somewhere around average.
“The last 10 games have been really good,” Myers said before Thursday’s game against Toronto at First Niagara Center. “There’s definitely still more there, but I’ve been focusing on my defensive end. There’s always room for improvement, but it’s right where I want it to be.”
That doesn’t mean jumping into the rush and making dynamic forays into the offensive zone, as Myers did when he won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie in the 2009-10 season. On the contrary, his head coach isn’t demanding much from Myers offensively right now.
“Ron [Rolston] has told me he doesn’t care if I get another point the rest of the year,” Myers said. “So my main focus has been the D-zone, and that’s been really good for the most part. I’ll find my offensive game again. I’m not worried about that.”
You’d think we were discussing some rookie, instead of a fourth-year man who got a seven-year, $38.5 million contract extension last July. The Sabres are one of the worst teams in the NHL, a defensive wreck. They got their coach fired. And their 6-foot-8 franchise defenseman is taking baby steps.
Not so long ago, people were projecting Myers as the greatest defenseman in franchise history. As a 19-year-old rookie, he scored 11 goals and 48 points. You figured he was scratching the surface of his offensive potential. Surely, there were bigger numbers, maybe a Norris Trophy, in his future.
But it hasn’t worked out that way. Myers was bad for a chunk of his second season. He started slowly again and missed 23 games with injuries last season. This year, after injuring his ankle overseas, he showed up out of shape and lost on the ice. He entered Thursday with five points and a minus-6 rating.
After scoring in the opener, Myers went a career-high 10 straight games without a point. During one six-game stretch, he was minus-9. That earned him a two-game benching from Ruff, who was fired soon after. Myers has been better under Ron Rolston. Is he more comfortable with Ruff gone?
Myers laughed. “I mean, it’s different for sure. But I can’t take anything away from Lindy. He helped me tremendously when he was here, and helped me improve a lot. In saying that, Ron’s been really good with me as well. He’s been really supportive and positive with me. It’s been good.”
It didn’t help matters when Myers showed up for the shortened season in poor shape. Ruff, who was coaching for his job, surely wanted more than his star defenseman had to offer in the first month.
“Yeah,” Myers said. “I wanted more. It’s something that had to be addressed. It has been addressed. But you know, I won’t be making that mistake again.”
That’s small consolation for Ruff, or for fans who watched Myers stagger through the first half of the season after getting a $10 million signing bonus from Terry Pegula.
You expect more for that kind of money. The standard was raised when he signed the deal, same as it did for Mario Williams when the Bills gave him $100 million. The Sabres aren’t paying Myers to be average, or merely good. They’re paying him for great.
“I think I’ve always put a tremendous amount of pressure on myself, even before the contract,” Myers said. “So I don’t think that’s changed much. I think coming into seasons, I want to help the team so badly that I end up trying to do too much out there.
“I really do feel like I’m learning from that,” he said, “to in a sense come in a little calmer into a season and just don’t feel like I have to do everything and just play a simple game. That’s what I’m starting to learn, and it’ll help me in the long run.”
That’s fine. But Myers isn’t a kid anymore. He’s in his fourth NHL season. There’s talk of moving the veteran core of Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville and Ryan Miller. Myers is the new core, the future, the presumed superstar who was supposed to be the foundation of the franchise.
But do you build a team around a defenseman who isn’t tough to play against, who comes out mentally soft after a great rookie year or a lucrative new contract, who leaves his goalie out to dry on far too many occasions, and who played his worst with his coach under fire?
What do you say, I asked Myers, to the idea that it’s not enough to be good, that you need to be great?
“I just feel like you’re putting more pressure on me,” he said. “No, I’m satisfied with good. No, I’m not. I think any player would want to move up with how they’re playing. It’s only natural if you want to get better, so I’m not worried about finding it again. I know it’ll come.”
“Back in my rookie year, the offensive production was there, and it felt great,” he said. “But there were a lot of holes in the defensive zone that people looked past, because I was so young. I don’t have that luxury anymore.”
He’s not a kid, but he’s still young. Defensemen tend to mature later. You don’t give up on a player of Myers’ abilities. Still, Sabres fans’ worst fear has to be that they saw too much in Myers too soon, and that he might not have greatness in him at all.