BUFFALO – Vladimir Sobotka’s arrival here was mostly overlooked. Of course, that isn’t surprising given the Sabres acquired the Czech forward in a blockbuster trade just hours after free agency opened.
The Sabres signed a few new players, including starting goalie Carter Hutton, early on July 1. Then they dished former NHL All-Star Ryan O’Reilly to the St. Louis Blues for three players and a first-round pick that night.
So in the excitement that accompanied trading O’Reilly on the busiest day on the NHL calendar, Sobotka’s acquisition barely registered.
Fast forward to today, and Sobotka, 31, has quietly been one of the biggest surprises during the Sabres’ strong 9-6-2 start, showcasing his versatility while moving around the lineup.
“He’s kind of like a Swiss Army Knife, he can do it all,” said Hutton, who played with Sobotka in St. Louis. “I think he’s shown that every night.”
Entering tonight’s tilt against the Tampa Bay Lightning inside KeyBank Center, Sobotka has scored three goals in 14 outings, more than Berglund (two) and Thompson (zero) have combined and just one less than top center Jack Eichel.
“He’s very steady and reliable,” said Sabres coach Phil Housley, who has utilized Sobotka at center and wing.
Right now, the 5-foot-11, 197-pound Sobotka is a left winger beside center Evan Rodrigues and Jason Pominville. Sobotka also kills penalties, takes key faceoffs and occasionally plays on the power play.
“He’s a really strong guy, he’s extremely stable, he’s really good in the corners,” Sabres winger Kyle Okposo said. “He’s played a long time. He does a lot of the little things right you don’t really notice. (He’s) just a smart player, can kind of play up and down your lineup.”
Sobotka also possesses offensive upside. He compiled a career-high 11 goals and 31 points in 81 games last season.
In Thursday’s 6-5 overtime win Montreal, Sobotka scored twice in the first period.
“He’s very reliable and dependable,” Housley said. “We probably could get him some more power-play time, but he’s doing such a good job on the penalty kill. He’s important in D-zone with the draws on the left dot, and he just brings a workmanlike approach to the game.
“He’s very consistent. We’d like him to contribute more offensively like he did in Montreal.”
Still, Sobotka often isn’t cast in an offensive role. Taking draws in the defensive zone, Hutton said, usually doesn’t set you up to score goals.
“We were just joking around sometimes those players are the guys they get the puck out and then they get a faceoff in the offensive zone and then they change for the top guys to come out, right?” Hutton said. “Not everybody’s going to be the guy putting pucks in the back of the net.
“You need all those versatility players to make the engine run. I think he’s definitely a key part of that. He does have offense.”
Sobotka showcased his offensive prowess during a three-year run in the KHL, compiling 27 goals and 102 points in 138 contests.
In 2014, after recording a career-best 33 points, Sobotka bolted from the NHL to sign a three-year contract with Omsk Avangard, a Siberian team.
“That was just my personal thing,” Sobotka, who was a restricted free agent then, said of why he left the Blues.
After his KHL contract expired, Sobotka returned to St. Louis late in the 2016-17 season, playing one game before earning regular duty in the playoffs.
“I tried something new,” Sobotka said of his KHL stint. “What it did to help me or not, I never regretted it.”
Sobotka, as his answers might illustrate, is “a quiet guy,” Hutton said.
“He’s a family man, he’s a really good teammate,” Hutton said. “He’s got a dry sense of humor. I think once you get to know him a little better he opens up.”
Okposo said: “He’s soft-spoken at first, but now that he’s comfortable, he’s pretty funny.”
Okposo said Sobotka is an “old-school NHL guy,” an assessment Hutton said is true.
“He’s got a real bite to him, you know what I mean?” Hutton said. “He’s a guy that’s not going to shy away from anything. If guys want to mix it up, he’s going to be right in there headfirst.”