By Bill Hoppe
Finally, Sabres rookie Joe Finley has started catching some breaks. In less than three professional seasons, the hulking 6-foot-8, 260-pound defenseman went from an intriguing first-round prospect to an injury-prone bust stuck in the low-level ECHL.
Somehow, though, Finley’s in the NHL, ready to make his debut tonight when the Sabres host the Detroit Red Wings at the First Niagara Center.
It’s been a whirlwind few months, for sure. Finley was playing for the South Carolina Stingrays in April.
The 24-year-old impressed during a training camp tryout, getting an AHL deal. Still, he was a healthy scratch for Rochester’s opener. He began turning heads once he played, earning a three-year NHL contract Monday.
Then, Jordan Leopold, Finley’s offseason workout partner in Minnesota, went down Tuesday, the fourth defenseman injured in two weeks.
“Hey, you know what? If he has to be my sacrificial lamb, I guess he’s OK in doing that,” Finley joked to a throng of reporters and cameras Thursday inside the First Niagara Center. “These guys need to get healthy and continue this thing on track. That’s the most important thing. I’m here to fill a void and obviously to play good hockey.”
But had T.J. Brennan been healthy, the Sabres would’ve recalled him again. Brennan’s hurt, so the Sabres summoned Finley instead.
“We have to go to the next-best option,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “I think (the Rochester staff) felt Joe had been playing well. You got to trust in what they say. I think the obvious person would’ve been T.J.”
But Finley deserves this break, right?
“I’m not going to say I did or I didn’t,” Finley said. “What’s gone on in the past is definitely behind me.”
Despite being the second option, Ruff said Finley’s recall was warranted.
“He’s played very well,” Ruff said. “We’ve got another man that’s 6-foot-8 that can skate almost as well as Tyler Myers can. He’s defended really well down there. You look at that and if he can continue to progress and stay hungry, you don’t find those type of players. You don’t find them in the draft anymore. It takes a long time to develop them.”
Finley will become the 30th player to dress for the Sabres this season. He might play with Brayden McNabb tonight, an all-rookie tandem.
“Obviously, we’re putting them in against a hornet’s nest, a team that’s really gone well. Not an easy situation to go into,” Ruff said about the neophytes. “But I’m pretty sure he’s welcoming it.”
Sabres fans are certainly welcoming Finley, the 27th overall pick by Washington in 2005.
With his draft status and size, he’s one of the most interesting youngsters in recent memory, having played only 69 pro games. Eighteen of his 26 AHL appearances have come this season.
Shortly after his recall early Wednesday night, Finley became the top trending name on Twitter in the entire United States.
“If the fans got me the No. 1 trending topic, that’s all positive stuff,” Finley said. “I’m all for it.”
Finley’s arduous road to the NHL has been dotted with some odd incidents and injuries, all of which he believes have made him more mature.
In 2007, while at the University of North Dakota, Finley slashed the leg of the University of Wisconsin’s mascot, Bucky Badger. In 2009, shortly after turning pro, he was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for throwing a lawnmower and kitchen table in the middle of the street. He was also charged with giving false information to officers afterward.
Years later, Finley sees no humor in the incidents.
“It’s not funny,” he said.
Severe hand and knee injuries stymied his development once he joined the Capitals’ organization.
During the offseason, Finley picked the Sabres, who had eight NHL defenseman and several legitimate prospects in Rochester. Why?
“(General manager) Darcy (Regier) wanted to give me an opportunity and take a look at (me),” Finley said. “An opportunity’s worth its weight in gold as far as I’m concerned because when you look at it, they genuinely did give me an opportunity. Just being afforded that has been tremendous. I can’t complain.
“Maybe I’m not sitting in this position today and I’m here three months down the road or a year or two years, I’m still very grateful for that opportunity.”
Ruff has likened Finley’s tryout to test-driving a used car.
“He was able to skate and make plays,” Ruff said. “For a big man, that’s always a challenge. He skates very well. He’s able to handle the puck. His first pass has been good. I think when you have that size and that reach you have an automatic advantage over a lot of players.”
Finley seized his opportunity in Rochester, forming a strong duo with NHL veteran Shaone Morrisonn, someone he knew from Washington. So far, Finley has one goal, two points a plus-10 rating and 57 penalty minutes with the Americans.
“I’ve really just taken it upon myself to focus on the things I can control,” Finley said. “I’m trying to play a real simple, solid brand of hockey. I’ve been fortunate to do that so far. Things are moving in the right direction. But there’s a long way to go to be here full time, that’s for sure.”
The Sabres, down eight regulars, could get three – wingers Tyler Ennis (ankle sprain, 17 games) and Patrick Kaleta (groin) and goalie Ryan Miller (concussion, eight games) – back tonight.
All three practiced fully Thursday.
What about Miller, who still had to pass his baseline concussion test later Thursday?
“If we don’t feel Friday looks good, then we’ll make this decision Saturday,” Ruff said about Miller playing.
The Sabres have returned goalie Drew MacIntyre to Rochester.
Mike Grier, the popular former winger who enjoyed two successful stints with the Sabres, retired Thursday after 1,060 games over 14 NHL seasons. The 36-year-old hadn’t played this year.
“Just good memories,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said about Grier. “Mike was one of the ultimate competitors, a big man that played the game hard, was great in the locker room, was well respected by his teammates, and I think that if there’s anybody you’d like to be like as a young guy walking in the locker room, you’d want to follow in Mike’s footsteps.”
Grier, who entered the league with Edmonton in 1996, compiled 162 goals and 383 points. He quickly became known as a strong checker forward and penalty killer. He played 241 games with the Sabres, first from 2004-06, and then from 2009-11 after a three-year stint in San Jose.
“I was very fortunate to be able to play 14 seasons in the NHL with some great players,” Grier said in a statement. “The memories and friendships that I have built during my time in the league will last a lifetime. I would like to thank my former teammates, family and fans for helping make my career so memorable for me. It was a great ride, and I am now excited and looking forward to my post-playing future.”