By Bill Hoppe
Yes, Jordan Leopold said, he’s received big ice time before, about eight years ago as a youngster. Skating 25 minutes or more some nights is nothing new for the Sabres defenseman.
“I was a young buck in Calgary,” Leopold said Thursday following practice inside the First Niagara Center.
Today, however, Leopold’s a battle-tested 31-year-old, one of only two healthy veteran defensemen heading into the Sabres’ tilt tonight in Carolina against the Hurricanes.
It was thought Leopold, the Sabres’ ice time leader as a newcomer in 2010-11, could see a slightly reduced role this year. The team acquired Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr during the offseason. Several talented youngsters seemed poised to break out.
Instead, injuries and some disappointing performances have the Sabres leaning heavily on Leopold again. Halfway through the season, Leopold, who has seven goals and 15 points, could be their unsung hero.
With Ehrhoff, Tyler Myers, Andrej Sekera all out and other defensemen missing time recently, Sabres coach Lindy Ruff has ramped up Leopold’s minutes, even playing him a whopping 29:57 on Saturday, when he assisted on both goals in a 3-2 shootout loss to Ottawa.
“I didn’t expect to see the ice time I saw last year by any means,” Leopold said. “It’s one of those deals where you bring Chris in, he’s your go-to guy offensively. You take a little bit different role, play a little bit more of a defensive game. But with all the injuries it seems like it has been (like) last season.”
Leopold’s skated at least 19:46 in 20 of the last 21 contests. In full games with Myers out, he’s averaging 23:16.
“He’s been real valuable. He’s given us really only our real true veteran back there with a ton of experience,” Ruff said. “We’ve had to overplay him in some situations. I think he’s done good with the ice time. If you look at how he plays, he’s not a guy that would normally play those types of minutes.”
Leopold said about the increased ice time: “You embellish it, try to run with it and go try to play your best hockey. It’s as simple as that.”
Is this the best he’s felt in a long time?
“God, will you just quit talking about that!” Leopold joked to a reporter following several questions related to playing time.
The levity Leopold brings to the dressing room might be just as important as any on-ice exploits. He’s constantly giving anyone within earshot a quick line. He often uses “Hollywood Squares” replies to questions, telling a joke answer first for laughs.
That personality has made Leopold arguably the Sabres’ most unflappable player. He rarely showcases any negative emotion or appears bothered.
“I’ve just seen over the years guys that have fun at the rink and enjoy hockey, have a little bit … more energetic spirit,” Leopold said. “I like to have fun. … I try not to complain, condemn or criticize. As much as you can limit yourself to that you tend to live a happy life. If you ask my wife, she’d probably say I’ve been criticizing her quite a bit.”
Ruff said Leopold’s “what you want in there because he knows how to play the game.”
“He knows how to get ready, prepare,” he said. “At the same time, he can keep it light. He’s involved with the lighter side. He’s involved with a lot of guys. I think he’s a good guy to have around young players. He’s just a good example.”
Myers added: “It keeps guys in a great mood. When things aren’t necessarily going our way, he always stays positive. You never see him hanging his head, anything like that.”
Does Leopold ever get angry, on or off the ice? He’s never had an NHL fight, according to hockeyfights.com. He has only six penalty minutes this season.
“I do, but very, very, very rarely,” Leopold said. “Even on the ice, very rarely do I even get angry, out-of-control angry. It’s happened maybe once in my career. … It’s part of my character my dad and my mom instilled in me.”
Meanwhile, Myers, out the last 19 games after breaking his wrist Nov. 19, said “it’s looking pretty probable” he’ll play tonight.
Myers appeared a long ways away just a few days ago. Then getting the go-ahead to return restored his confidence.
“Those pinches and aches and pains I got before the doctor told me, I was nervous I wasn’t quite healed,” Myers said. “As soon as the doctor told me it was completely healed, it’s almost a piece of mind that allowed me to gain that confidence to really push it.”
In other injury news, winger Tyler Ennis (ankle sprain) sat Thursday after suffering a stinger in practice a day earlier. He won’t skate today, Ruff said. Center Ville Leino (broken foot) wants to play Saturday. Ruff thinks he needs more time.
n Ruff, whose Sabres will try to win two in a row tonight for the first time in seven weeks, on the need to string victories together so they can climb into a playoff spot: “We got to feel good about the win (Tuesday) and be ready to get a second one. You don’t gain any ground. We’ve been able to kind of tread water. But now it’s time to put a little run together.”