By Bill Hoppe
On Thursday morning, long after all his Sabres teammates had departed the ice, defenseman Mike Weber stayed out, going through extra drills with three assistant coaches. Finally, after about 15 minutes, a sweaty Weber entered the dressing room.
The 23-year-old spent a few minutes chatting, then took off his equipment and began an off-ice workout. About eight hours later, as the Sabres played the Columbus Blue Jackets, Weber was underneath the First Niagara Center stands, working out again and watching the game on a television in the team’s training facilities.
Days like Thursday have become normal for Weber. The Sabres’ defense depth has made him the odd man out, a spare part. Nine games in, the American still hasn’t played.
Weber, a steady regular last season after sitting almost two straight months, thought he had overcome being a healthy scratch. Then the Sabres added defensemen Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr during the offseason.
“After last year, the part I played, the consistency I had, I was pretty happy with the way I performed and obviously pretty happy with training camp,” Weber said Thursday morning prior to the Sabres’ 4-2 win. “But obviously we added some key additions and some big names. It’s put me in this situation again. I’m just trying to stay positive.”
How has Weber handled it?
“Not very well, and no player should, obviously,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “He was a good part of our team last year. It’s a tough situation right now.”
That situation could be changing, though. Common sense says Weber, who sat the first eight games last year and 20 of the first 22, won’t sit forever.
Last season, Weber’s toughness added a new dimension. Regehr fills that role now. But at some point the Sabres will need Weber’s fearsome edge.
“There’s some things I’m still trying to make my mind up on, the importance of certain individuals and whether we should rotate a couple individuals,” Ruff said. “Short-term, he’s been the guy that’s been taking the bullet. He’s been OK, but I don’t want him to be happy, either.”
Weber acknowledged “there’s frustration building.”
“I’m a tough kind of player,” he said. “Sitting out’s not easy. It’s kind of a tough situation when you have the caliber of defense that we have. All seven of us, every one of us is a top-six or a top-four guy. It’s frustrating in the aspect that I’m not playing.
“But I have to trust the coaching staff and know they’re trying to do what it takes to win right now and that I’ll get my chance, and when I get my chance I’ll do the same thing I did last year.”
Weber played 58 games as a rookie in 2010-11, accumulating a gaudy plus-13 rating and 17 points. He started the season as the eighth defender, but eventually moved ahead of Craig Rivet and Shaone Morrisonn.
Weber’s current status isn’t performance-related, Ruff said.
“It’s definitely a number, and … we feel we have a certain need for who’s in the lineup,” he said.
In the meantime, Weber’s been trying to make the most of a difficult situation. He learned a lot last year dissecting games with Rivet in the press box. Now, he’s happy to have former teammate Teppo Numminen, a new coach, instructing him with Dennis Miller and James Patrick on the ice.
“It’s nice to have him now on the coaching staff, just his demeanor, his calm mentality, when he’s out there talking he’s extremely patient, talks through things with you,” Weber said.
It’s a demeanor Weber’s taken throughout his ordeal.
“I know I can play,” Weber said. “I know I can be top six. I know I can be killing penalties on a regular basis. Those are all things I know. It’s just frustrated not being able to help the team. But I know I’m helping the team just practicing hard, staying positive and doing the best I can to stay ready.”
Notes: The Sabres scratched winger Tyler Ennis (ankle) and center Jochen Hecht (concussion). Ennis is wearing a walking boot on his left foot. … Sabres agitator Patrick Kaleta, who scored the winner, fought in the first period despite an infected cut that has been making his face swell. “If you look at my nose today, you might think I’d stay out of the fight’s path,” Kaleta said. “I tried to spark something.” Kaleta saw a doctor Thursday morning. … Ruff on the first home win: “We needed to get one. I don’t care how we got it.” The Sabres had lost two straight overall. … The Blue Jackets are an NHL-worst 1-8-1.