By Bill Hoppe
BUFFALO — It was instantly better. Upon his arrival from Vancouver on Feb. 27, Alexander Sulzer went from the Canucks’ eighth defenseman to the Sabres’ seventh.
Yes, the German was still a spare part. But moving up one slot made him that much closer to playing, something he had only done 12 times in Vancouver all season. Sulzer was a healthy scratch an incredible 51 times.
“Obviously, since there are only seven defensemen, if something happens where a coach is unhappy with a guy the way he plays, I’m in right away instead of having to sit out and wait for seven D,” Sulzer said Wednesday inside the First Niagara Center.
And if the Sabres’ brittle defensive corps suffered another injury, the 27-year-old would play.
About eight hours after Sulzer spoke Wednesday, he was a surprise addition to the lineup. Andrej Sekera had come down with a bad case of the flu.
So far, Sulzer’s played four games with the Sabres, including the last three, averaging 17:57 a contest, mostly beside fellow countryman Christian Ehrhoff.
Sulzer could skate again tonight when the Sabres host the Montreal Canadiens.
By now, three full years into his NHL career, Sulzer (pronounced ZUHLT-ser) has learned to deal with sitting. He’s never played more than 40 games in a campaign and only 78 total.
“I always play like 30, 40 games maybe,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I’m used to it now. I know how to handle it better. I know how to stay positive. I just work hard every day. I’m still one of the 700 players who play in the NHL, which is definitely not a bad thing. It could be quite worse.”
Defensemen possess so much athleticism these days many can be partnered with anyone. Sulzer’s quietly slid into the lineup and skated beside the slick Ehrhoff, a $10 million defender.
It could already be considered a top tandem. Sulzer played 22:08 in Saturday’s 4-3 shootout win over Ottawa.
“He’s kind of a stay-at-home defenseman, make a good first pass, solid one-on-one player,” Ehrhoff said about Sulzer last week. “He can bring some offensive upside, too.”
Sabres coach Lindy Ruff added: “(Sulzer’s) a good depth defenseman, mobile, a good puck mover.”
Ehrhoff, Sulzer’s teammate and roommate at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, called playing with him “predictable.”
“You know what he’s going to do,” Ehrhoff said. “He’s going to defend very good. I thought he played a very good game (last) Saturday.”
Sulzer’s Buffalo debut last Saturday in Vancouver, his first game since Jan. 15, made him feel comfortable quickly.
“That was great,” Sulzer said. “It was a really good feeling, especially playing against my old team, and then having a big game and (a 5-3) win was really good for me and for the team.”
The 92nd overall pick by Nashville in 2003, Sulzer was part of an incredible draft class in which the Predators nabbed defense stars Ryan Suter, Shea Weber and regular Kevin Klein.
Sulzer spent five years in the DEL, Germany’s top league, and then came to North America in 2007.
He played 53 games with the Predators, who traded him to Florida last season to make room for Jonathon Blum. However, Sulzer appeared only nine times with the Panthers.
He knew playing time could be sparse when he signed with a stacked Vancouver club.
“It was not really surprising,” he said. “When I signed, they told me I was going to fight for a roster spot in camp. So it was pretty much expected that if I make the team I don’t play every game.”
Sulzer’s at a crossroads now. He’s an unrestricted free agent following the season. If he keeps performing well, he could draw interest during the summer and crack someone’s top six.
He’s already impressed the Sabres more than Marc-Andre Gragnani, the extra defender he was swapped for at the deadline.
“I signed with Vancouver, and it’s another fresh start and another chance to establish myself as a top six defenseman in the league,” Sulzer said. “I’m still working on it. I’m definitely in a good position here.”