SUNRISE, Fla. — T.J. Brennan was preparing for a routine off-night dinner March 15 in Buffalo when his cell phone went off. Darcy Regier was at the other end of the line with the stunning news that Brennan’s Sabres career was over and he was off to play for the Florida Panthers.
“It hit me by surprise. It’s a little surreal at first,” Brennan said Thursday as he prepared to face his old team in BB&T Center. The Panthers bested the Sabres, 5-4 in a shootout.
“I was going out to dinner and the next thing you know I got a call. I had to call my family and then I started getting calls from guys down here. I was a little surprised but there’s a great opportunity here and I’m trying to make the best of it.”
Brennan, a former second-round pick by the Sabres, was essentially dumped for a fifth-round pick. He had struggled in several attempts to become a regular in the NHL but the move was still a mild surprise given the likelihood the Sabres will deal veteran defensemen but so quickly gave up on a 23-year-old blue liner. The Panthers almost certainly jumped at Brennan in part because his coach at Portland of the AHL was current Florida coach Kevin Dineen.
Brennan had one point (a goal March 5 at Carolina) in 10 games with the Sabres this year and was a healthy scratch 17 times after having a big year in Rochester, where he was leading the Amerks in goals and points until the lockout ended.
Does Brennan feel the Sabres gave up on him too early?
“I’m not sure. That’s not really my call,” he said. “Obviously I tried to make the best of the opportunity I had in Buffalo. I guess I wasn’t in their plans. When I came here to Florida, I’ve been with Kevin before and am looking for more opportunity. It’s good to be reconnected to him and I wish all the best to Buffalo. Not fitting in their plans, that’s just the way it goes sometime.
“Coming in here it was a little more comforting having a coach who knew how I played already. I didn’t have to prove myself to the full extent. I just want to prove myself at the NHL level.”
Brennan played a career-high 23 minutes, 42 seconds and scored a goal March 16 in his Florida debut against the New York Islanders. He had an assist in his third game and played 19:24 but was minus-2 in his fifth game Sunday in the Nassau Coliseum. The Panthers made him a healthy scratch Tuesday in Toronto but returned him to the lineup Thursday.
“TJ’s been fine,” Dineen said. “He’s got a heavy shot and we’re having discussions on the way we play in certain situations but TJ has been everything we expected that he would be.
“The growth curve is always a long one for defenseman in most cases. Whether it’s TJ or [Panthers teammate] Erik Gudbranson or Tyler Myers. Things happen on the defensive side, they seem to stick out a little more. But I have no doubt he’ll continue to work on his development stage.”
One thing that Brennan didn’t have to worry about was some Florida family members canceling plans to see the Sabres play here Thursday. He said they had bought tickets weeks ago but were still able to see him play, except now on the other side.
“It’s weird I’m playing against Buffalo,” he said. “Seeing some of them on the other side of the ice is definitely a little different.”
Sabres winger Thomas Vanek did not take the morning skate and missed the game with the upper-body muscle strain he suffered Tuesday at Tampa Bay. His status for the back-to-back home games this weekend against Washington and Boston is uncertain.
Andrej Sekera returned to the lineup after missing five games with an upper-body injury and rookie Mark Pysyk was scratched on defense. To accommodate Drew Stafford and John Scott in the lineup, the Sabres also scratched rookie Brian Flynn. He has no goals in his last four games.
• Sabres winger Steve Ott played his 600th career game Thursday. Defenseman Christian Ehrhoff will play No. 600 Saturday at First Niagara Center against Washington.
• Panthers rookie Jonathan Huberdeau entered the game leading NHL rookies in goals (12) and was second in points (21). With 12 goals in the first 25 games of his career, Huberdeau joins Pittsburgh’ Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Washington’s Alex Ovechkin and Anaheim’s Teemu Selanne as the only active players to accomplish the feat.
• If the Sabres trade one of their veteran defensemen, they won’t be replacing him by simply calling up Brayden McNabb from Rochester. McNabb suffered a knee injury Saturday at Houston and the Amerks said today he will be out at least four weeks.
• The Panthers announced shortly before the game that captain Ed Jovanovski will have season-ending hip surgery April 5. The veteran defenseman has been limited to six games this season.