BUFFALO – Six months ago, Nick Deslauriers’ future in the NHL looked iffy. Following a career-worst season in which he scored zero goals for the Sabres, it became apparent the popular winger wasn’t part of the new regime’s plans.
On Sept. 30, the Sabres waived Deslauriers. Four days later, they traded him to the Montreal Canadiens, who promptly assigned him to the Laval Rocket.
Deslauriers, 27, hadn’t played in the AHL since 2013-14.
To Deslauriers, he needed the “fresh air” changing teams quickly provided him. He said the fit with the Sabres was no longer there. Going through waivers and playing 14 games with Laval provided “a good wake-up call.”
These days, Deslauriers is happy. In 51 games with his hometown Canadiens, he has already scored a career-high eight goals. Last month, he signed a two-year, $1.9 million contract extension.
“I went from having a really tough year to getting a slap in the face, going on waivers and playing in the AHL,” Deslauriers said prior to Friday’s 3-0 win against the Sabres. “That’s what I needed, (I) rebuilt everything. It’s been good. I’m happy with what I came through this year.”
He added: “I took advantage of going to a new organization … and I just proved I could be an NHL player again.”
But Deslauriers, the Sabres’ top fighter for years, was happy in Buffalo. After all, they gave him his first opportunity in the NHL shortly after acquiring him late in 2013-14.
“I liked it here, I wanted to stay here,” he said. “Just from my last season, I didn’t play much, I didn’t produce at all. Everything was going the opposite way. If I stayed here, would I have had the same season? I don’t know.”
If Deslauriers had stayed, he’d still be making his teammates laugh. Mentioning his name inevitably leads to a smile. His passion and fun-loving personality made him perhaps the most popular teammate in the dressing room.
On Friday morning, Sabres center Ryan O’Reilly grinned recalling feeding Deslauriers for a short-handed goal.
“He had the real intense (celebration) and bear hugged (me) in the huddle,” O’Reilly said. “He’s a guy like that, always had that energy. He just always had that excitement and could do so many things.”
The Canadiens had a day off Thursday in Buffalo, so Deslauriers visited his house, which he is renting to Sabres defenseman Justin Falk. He said walking from the team hotel to KeyBank Center was “kind of weird.”
“It was to good see where it all started,” he said of visiting Buffalo for the first time as an opponent.
Deslauriers said when the Sabres waived him, general manager Jason Botterill told him he would try to find him the best place. Little did he know it would work out so well.
While the Canadiens have endured a brutal season, they’re still hockey’s most storied franchise. Deslauriers grew up about 20 minutes outside Montreal in LaSalle, Quebec.
“It’s unbelievable,” Deslauriers said of playing for the Canadiens. “It’s hard to describe, you know? You see the history and … when you put your bucket on, you see all the alumni. It’s very special … especially being a French home.”
Sabres defenseman Nathan Beaulieu was a “little sore” and missed Friday’s tilt against his old team.
But if Beaulieu, 25, hadn’t taken a puck to his upper body last game, he would still be scratched.
“He was not playing in this game,” Sabres coach Phil Housley said.
Defenseman Josh Gorges, a Canadiens regular for eight seasons, returned. Gorges, 33, had sat out four straight games and nine of the last 11.
Beaulieu has endured a rough season, never getting on track. He struggled from the get-go after Housley awarded him a spot beside No. 1 defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen on opening night. Beaulieu has also battled an injury and two illnesses.
“Beau had a tough start to the season,” Housley said. “I think that affected his confidence. He had a great opportunity coming to a new team and things just didn’t work out for him.
“But his last 20 games have been pretty solid. I think he’s been better in his own end, I think he’s been trying to add to the offense. But again, there’s a couple critical times and errors in games that affected our team. Just giving some other guys an opportunity.”
He added: “His defensive reads and his defensive awareness, I think he’s just got to get stronger in those areas.”
Is Housley sending Beaulieu a message benching him against the Canadiens? It certainly seems like it.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I think it’s just the timing of the game. It wouldn’t have mattered who we played this night.”
The Sabres also scratched Falk and winger Justin Bailey. Defenseman Victor Antipin played after sitting out two games.
Why scratch Bailey, 22, a prospect whose speed the Sabres sorely need?
“Just changes, we’ve lost the last two games in a row,” Housley said. “I think he’s playing hard, he’s playing physical.”
Winger Zemgus Girgensons, out the two games with an upper-body injury, also returned.