BUFFALO – Center Kyle Criscuolo left a pretty good gig to join the Sabres.
The undrafted Harvard product enjoyed a terrific rookie season in 2016-17, scoring 17 goals in the AHL and winning a Calder Cup with the Grand Rapids Griffins.
Leaving the Detroit Red Wings organization to sign a two-year, two-way contract with the Sabres on July 1 “was really tough,” he said.
“The people were great to me, the organization was great to me, they gave me a chance out of school,” Criscuolo said Thursday after earning his first NHL recall. “I mean, it was definitely a tough decision, and ultimately I had to go with my gut.”
Criscuolo’s gut told him the Sabres offered a special opportunity.
“They understood how I play and how I want to play,” he said after the Sabres prepared for tonight’s road tilt against the Red Wings. “I think they did a good job of knowing what kind of player and person I am and what I want to bring to the team. I think what they said to me was pretty convincing that they want to put me in spots they think I can be effective.”
The 5-foot-9, 172-pound Criscuolo, 25, thrived early on with the Rochester Americans, compiling five goals and a team-high 11 points in 14 games.
“I just try to use my speed and get in on the forecheck and create havoc and cause some turnovers,” Criscuolo said inside KeyBank Center. “I try to keep it simple and get to the net as much as I can.”
“It’s obviously a long road to get here,” Criscuolo said.
Clearly, the reeling, last-place Sabres, who have lost three straight games (0-1-2), are examining all their options to jumpstart a dismal season.
While Criscuolo wasn’t a notable pro prospect, he played four years at Harvard, where he captained the Crimson his last two seasons.
“The caliber of players I was playing with in college and knowing they were going to be making the next step to pro hockey, NHL, I sort of felt like I could play with these guys and I could keep up,” he said.
So Criscuolo, who graduated with a degree in psychology and a minor in economics, pursued a pro hockey career.
“I didn’t know what was going to come of it, but I was definitely motivated and wanted to keep going,” he said.
Despite posting strong numbers – the undersized Criscuolo compiled 53 goals and 113 points in 124 games with Harvard – some teams hesitated “to sort of go all in on me,” he said.
“I don’t know if I’d necessarily say I was overlooked,” he said.
So what has helped Criscuolo reach the NHL?
“Just persistence,” he said.
Sabres coach Phil Housley said Thursday that Criscuolo’s status for tonight’s contest will be decided later. But the New Jersey native will almost certainly make his NHL debut.
Housley put Criscuolo between Jordan Nolan and Zemgus Girgensons during Thursday’s practice. The Sabres still have one extra forward, Matt Moulson.
Right away in training camp, Housley said he noticed Criscuolo’s “competitive nature.”
“His willingness to get in the tough areas, go down low and win puck battles against bigger guys and using his speed and the energy he brought,” Housley said. “I thought it really rubbed off well on our bench and our coaching staff.”
Sabres goalie Robin Lehner said: “He had a real good camp, was one of the guys that stood out to me.”
Lehner’s glad the Sabres rewarded Criscuolo.
“Prospects are great, but there’s tremendous skill in the AHL,” he said. “There’s a lot of good players fighting and working hard to get their opportunities.”