BUFFALO – Before the defensemen became Sabres teammates, they met about nine years ago, as Tyler Myers was beginning his junior career and Josh Gorges was leaving the Kelowna Rockets for professional hockey.
Gorges couldn’t believe the teenager’s lanky frame.
“He was 6-5, 6-6, but probably only 180 pounds,” Gorges, who will skate beside Myers in tonight’s season opener, recalled earlier this week. “I’m thinking, ‘They’re really high on this kid, he better fill out. He’s pretty skinny.’”
Myers’ talent intrigued Gorges. He frequently asked one of Kelowna’s assistant coaches, a good friend, for reports on Myers.
“Wait ‘til you see this kid, wait ‘til you see this kid,” the friend told Gorges. “He’s 6-6. He shouldn’t be able to skate like this. If you’re 6-6, you should be a bad skater. You can’t have both.”
Gorges went back and watched the Rockets at the 2009 Memorial Cup. By then, Myers had grown to 6-foot-8 and packed on weight.
“He was a dominant player,” Gorges said. “He just controlled the game. You knew he was going to be a special player.”
But NHL superstardom has eluded the 24-year-old Myers, whose sixth campaign will begin tonight against the Columbus Blue Jackets inside the First Niagara Center.
His story has been well-documented. Shortly after winning the 2009-10 Calder Trophy, Myers suffered a stunning regression, losing his aggressiveness while becoming a mess defensively.
It’s been a slow climb back. By late last year, however, before broken ribs ended Myers’ season, he began to regain his old form, dominating some shifts each game by moving the puck all over the ice.
“I think he’s back,” Sabres coach Ted Nolan said Wednesday. “I’m looking forward to him going forward even better. I don’t think he’s reached his potential.”
How does Myers feel today compared to a year ago?
“Oh, way better,” he said. “I mean, it’s night and day mentally, physically. It feels like I’m back to my normal self, so it’s a good feeling.”
Myers believes he’s on track again because he “just stopped worrying.”
“I just wanted to play well so bad I ended up, theoretically, gripping my stick too hard,” he said. “I just got in my own head. I had a lot of help getting out of my own head. Just basically matured.”
Nolan chose Gorges, a respected 30-year-old the Sabres acquired from Montreal on July 1, as Myers’ partner.
“When I found out we were getting him, I knew what type of guy was coming into the room,” Myers said.
The move makes sense. Gorges, as a stay-at-home defender, can be an anchor.
“That leaves Tyler to be able to rush a little bit more, get involved but not a total green light,” Nolan said. “He can pick and choose. Josh is going to be there right with him to help us make him even a better player.”
Myers said he and Gorges are already communicating well.
“I don’t think it matters who your D partner is, if you’re communicating well, you’re going to have some chemistry,” he said.
To Gorges, playing with someone as talented as Myers is an “honor.”
“He’s a great hockey player,” he said. “Being able to spend some time close with him in practice and games, to watch what he does, how efficient he is in the game, how he can really make my job easy, he’s a fun player to watch.”
Myers was the most fun to watch five years ago, when he compiled 11 goals and 48 points. But he doesn’t use that season – “Everyone talks about my rookie year,” he said – as a measuring stick.
“I don’t necessarily look at the points but how I was as an all-around defenseman,” he said. “I feel I’m way ahead of the defensive part of the game right now.”
Nolan isn’t interested in that old version of Myers, either.
“That was a first-year kid playing better than all the first-year kids,” he said. “But he’s in a position where he can really take his game to the next level. Those type of guys don’t come around too often. You’re 6-8 and you skate like you’re 5-8, and the spins and the turns and the hockey sense.
“All those things combined, we got a special guy back there. So I’m looking forward to even better.”