ROCHESTER – No one, it seems, except for perhaps Jason Pominville himself, could believe the Buffalo Sabres did it.
Sure, the team was stacked up front in 2005 as the NHL emerged from the lockout. But why would they waive Pominville, one of their top prospects? He was out of options, and if they wanted to assign him to the Americans again, he would have to clear.
Every other team would have a chance to claim him.
“I remember this kid that was so good, and … we were loaded up front,” former Sabres co-captain Daniel Briere told the Times Herald. “We had three scoring lines and a very tough fourth line to face, but I remember thinking, ‘Why we putting this kid on waivers? He’s way too good and someone’s going to grab him.’”
Pominville, who will be inducted into the Amerks Hall of Fame with Val James prior to tonight’s game at Blue Cross Arena, had scored 30 goals in each of the previous two seasons in Rochester. He played a mature, multi-dimensional game. He was also a popular and respected teammate.
Still, the Sabres had a surfeit of forwards, and Pominville, a second-round pick in 2001, knew his chances of cracking the roster out of training camp were slim.
On opening night, for example, they dressed Briere, Maxim Afinogenov, Tim Connolly, Chris Drury, J.P. Dumont, Paul Gaustad, Mike Grier, Jochen Hecht, Ales Kotalik, Taylor Pyatt, Thomas Vanek and tough guy Andrew Peters.
“I had a fairly good camp, but then you look around and there’s like the team was healthy, like (the) right wingers that were there were all good players, they were all under contract, all under one-way deals,” Pominville said. “So, I guess, I was surprised but not surprised.”
So before the season started, the Sabres waived Pominville, a move that could’ve turned into a massive blunder.
“I can’t even imagine us without him,” Briere said.
Months later, Pominville, who turned 23 that season, would score one of the biggest goals in franchise history. The winger would become one of the highest-scoring Sabres ever, a two-time 30-goal scorer, an NHL All-Star and earn the captaincy.
And they risked losing him for nothing.
“It’s shocking,” former Sabres and Amerks defenseman Nathan Paetsch said of Pominville getting waived. “… A lot of us were concerned that he would (get claimed).”
Pominville, however, knew he would likely clear waivers and return to the Amerks for his fourth season.
“I knew as soon as I went on waivers that my chances of being claimed were probably going to be slim because teams are healthy, they have a certain amount of contracts they can have,” he said. “I hadn’t played in the NHL really before that besides (one game in 2003-04). So that I knew it was going to be tough. But once I got put on waivers I figured I was going to be on Roch, so there’s nothing to feel sorry about.”
That entire season – being waived, dominating upon his return to the AHL and becoming a huge contributor as the Sabres roared to the Eastern Conference final – has become part of Pominville’s legend.
He cleared waivers? How? He scored how many goals in Rochester?
Pominville had company in Rochester. Center Derek Roy, who did not need waivers, had also failed to make the big club after enjoying regular duty in Buffalo the second half of 2003-04.
The youngsters embraced another stint in the minors, and they became electrifying presences.
“A lot of times you get sent down and some guys are sour about it, some guys blame this, blame that, I should be here,” Pominville said. “… We went down there and were just like, ‘OK, let’s just play and try to force them to call us back up and call us up as quick as possible.’”
The even-keeled nature Pominville possessed throughout his career helped him enjoy a dynamic six weeks in Rochester.
“He might be one of those guys that has the perfect approach,” Briere said. “Jason is someone that never gets too high, never gets too low. … You want to push your players to be like him. Always in control of his emotion. That was one of his strengths. That probably helped him in that specific moment.
“He’s a worker, and that wasn’t going to change that. ‘OK, I’m going to go to the minors and I’m going to keep working and I’m going to keep proving them wrong.’”
Pominville had a five-goal game and scored a stunning 19 goals in just 18 outings. Roy, meanwhile, registered seven goals and a whopping 20 points in only eight contests.
“It was gross,” Paetsch said. “Between him and Roysie, I don’t know if I’ve seen two guys play themselves out of the league so quick, so fast, so dominantly.”
By November, both of them had been summoned to Buffalo for good, joining Gaustad, Vanek, goalie Ryan Miller and others they had developed alongside in Rochester.
Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, who had often watched Pominville up close during the lockout, trusted the rookie, throwing him into any situation.
“Lindy saw what I was able to do,” Pominville said. “Like, I played defense on the power play in Rochester. I got called up to Buffalo and he’s not afraid to afraid to throw me out there on the power play on the point. And that’s how I scored my first NHL goal.”
During Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinal five months later, Ruff put Pominville on the ice for a short-handed defensive-zone faceoff in overtime, and his breakaway goal clinched the series.
“To be able to score my goal in Ottawa,” Pominville said, “I think at that point it just made me feel like, ‘OK, like, I’m in and I’m here to stay.’”