CHICAGO — There are no slumped shoulders, no soft voice. Tyler Myers is meeting the questions head-on and standing tall while doing it, all 6-foot-8 of him.
But the improved body language belies what’s taking place on the ice. The former first-round draft choice is playing like a bottom-pair defenseman again, looking far too much like the confused, out-of-shape player he was during last year’s lockout-shortened season.
A full summer of physical and mental training has left Myers’ conditioning no longer in question. But improvement has been slow. The Sabres’ pop-gun offense is the main reason they’re 0-4-1 and have the worst record in the NHL.
But dissection of Myers’ play because of his size – and bloated $38.5 million contract signed in 2011 – is a daily topic in Sabreland. Poor reviews so far.
Myers was a complete spectator on Tampa Bay’s overtime winning goal Tuesday and was a minus-3 with partner Mike Weber during the first period of Buffalo’s 4-1 loss to Columbus on Thursday night. He’s already minus-7 for the season and Sabres fans everywhere are wincing at the thought of what disaster lurks tonight in the United Center, when the Sabres play the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
“It’s a great opportunity for us,” Myers said Friday after practice in First Niagara Center before the team flew to the Windy City. “We’re in a tough spot to start the season. To go into the defending champs’ home arena to try to get our first win is a great opportunity for us to start some real momentum. It’s going to take hard work. It’s not going to come easy. Especially against those guys, we’re going to have to compete.”
That’s for sure.
Myers talked after Thursday’s game about how he understands better in his fifth year in the league about quickly resetting after a tough night, and this schedule doesn’t allow the Sabres to fret.
After tonight’s game, they have four games next week, starting with Jason Pominville’s return Monday against Minnesota. Then a quick trip to the Nassau Coliseum for a game Tuesday night against the New York Islanders is followed by home games against Vancouver on Thursday and Colorado on Saturday.
Conversely, the Sabres hope the Hawks’ schedule is something they can take advantage of. The Hawks lost Wednesday at St. Louis, 3-2, and hosted the New York Islanders Friday night, so tonight’s game will be their third in four nights.
But that’s really grasping for straws on Buffalo’s part. The Sabres are last overall in the NHL with one point, have a league-low five goals in five games and entered Friday with New Jersey as the only teams without a win.
In the preseason, Myers looked refreshed. He played with a swagger, a confidence in carrying the puck out of his zone and making plays heading down the ice.
It’s gone away. Quickly.
In the last couple of years, he might have quibbled about such an observation. Not Friday. Myers acknowledged he “got back into old habits” against the Blue Jackets, including getting outfought at the crease for a loose puck on the visitors’ first goal and making a bad pinch that led to a two-on-one and a killer third goal in the final two minutes of the opening period.
“For me, it’s a matter of not forcing things,” said Myers. “It’s just a matter of really staying focused on letting the game come to me and that’s what I need to do going forward here. Once we start competing the way we know we can, stuff will start happening for everybody.”
“A lot of it is just in the details,” said coach Ron Rolston. “Awareness and stick position and body position. All those things are details they’ve got to do consistently and right now we just haven’t done them consistently, especially those two guys.”
Myers skated with Alexander Sulzer during Friday’s practice while Weber (minus-8) was with Nikita Zadorov, the rookie on the mend from a pinky injury.
That would seem to indicate that Weber could be a scratch tonight. Rolston would only smirk and not confirm a move with Sulzer when he was asked Friday.
“We’ll see,” Rolston said. “He’s practiced real well. He’s one of the best puck movers and passers we have. Quite possibly.”
While Myers seems to have escaped the press box this time, he could be on a short leash.
It would be easy to simply flip-flop Myers and Weber as scratches, and the Sabres still have to decide what to do with Zadorov when he’s healthy. They could give him his nine-game junior tryout before returning him to London of the OHL.
With this team’s record, anything is possible.
“It’s certainly not the start we wanted,” Myers said. “It’s a situtation we’re in and we’re going to have to work that much harder to get out of it.”