Roughly 200 hockey players from various parts of the globe are drafted into the National Hockey League every June at the league’s annual entry draft. Some are drafted high in the first round while others are taken much later, and each selection comes with a different level of expectation.
Rochester Americans forward Tim Schaller was not one of those drafted into the NHL. The 24-year-old was passed over during his draft year of 2009, and after playing four seasons at Providence College, was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Buffalo Sabres on April 2, 2013.
You can imagine given the road he has traveled that Schaller’s first promotion to the Sabres on Nov. 29 was a dish served extra sweet. Schaller played a modest 11:52 in his NHL debut against the Montreal Canadiens that night in a 4-3 shootout victory for Buffalo, and overall was pleased with his first NHL game.
“I did my job,” Schaller said. “Put pucks in deep, moved my feet, and used my body well. I think it was a good first game for me.”
Schaller has been doing more than just his job for the Amerks this season, posting 15 points in 23 games for Rochester while being one of the team’s most productive players at both ends of the ice. The former Hockey East Defensive Forward of the Year has certainly caught his head coach Chadd Cassidy’s attention this year and there was no one else happier to see Schaller break through to the next level.
“He is a guy that has earned it,” Cassidy said. “He had a great training camp, had a great start to the season. He’s doing all the things we ask of him. He plays physical, he plays through people, and he’s a good two-way player. I was really excited for Tim.”
Schaller admitted that prior to the game, he elected to soak in the experience by going out and observing the arena. Growing up as a fan of the Boston Bruins, seeing all of the historic names and banners in the rafters was a unique sight.
“I had a few guys tell me, since it’s such a good building, to go out and check it out before warm-ups so that you’re not in awe,” Schaller said. “I went out there by myself and looked around, saw all the names in the rafters and how many championships they have won. It hit me there, but I was able to regroup before the game and settle in.”
Of course, there was never any guarantee that Schaller would ever have the chance to sit on an NHL bench and see the Hall of Fame names hanging from the ceiling of such an historic arena. According to his head coach, Schaller’s journey from undrafted free agent to the NHL should provide a good example to other aspiring professionals who are passed over during the NHL’s entry draft.
“At the end of the day, what it comes down to is that everyone else around you is trying to get better and they have goals in mind, too,” Cassidy said. “Just because you’re drafted higher than somebody or someone else isn’t drafted, that doesn’t stop them from wanting to play in the National Hockey League.”
“For those guys that are high draft picks, there is always somebody right behind them that didn’t get drafted and is really ticked off about it. They want to claw their way into the NHL and Tim is one of those guys.”
It remains to be seen how much action Schaller will see at the major leagues this season, but Rochester’s Most Improved Player in 2013-14 has proven that professional hockey is not above him despite what his draft stock in 2009 might have suggested.
If he does nothing else this season, Schaller has shown that whether you hear your name called by an NHL team on draft day or simply sign on the dotted line as an undrafted free agent, there is always the possibility to play at hockey’s highest level.
For Schaller, the possibility was all he ever really needed.