Sabres sign Daniel Paille

By Kristofer Baker

The Buffalo Sabres added a key brick to their foundation today by announcing the signing of Guelph Storm standout Daniel Paille to a three-year deal. Selected 20th overall at the 2002 NHL Draft, the two-way center, who can also play wing, enters the Sabres organization with a wealth of experience at the junior level that should translate well into the pro ranks. He recently capped off his stellar OHL career with a 2003-2004 season that saw him showcase his physical brand of hockey at the most prestigious of venues.

An alternate captain for Guelph, Paille displayed a nose for the net by posting career marks in goals (37), assists (43), and points (80) in 59 games. He played most of the season on a line with Jakub Koreis, a player taken one spot ahead of him in 2002 by Phoenix. As the Storm’s second leading scorer, he skated in the 2004 OHL All-Star Game in Peterborough, and was once named Player of the Week. In November, Paille captained the OHL entry in the Canada/Russia Challenge, scoring two assists in the 2-0 series win. His 37 goals in 2003-2004 pushed his career total to 116, tying him for second in franchise history, only four behind leader Jeff O’Neill.

Despite having a 12-game point-scoring streak on two separate occasions, Paille made his mark with his intensity, spectacular body checks, and superb defensive acumen. This was clearly evidenced in the 2003-2004 Western Conference coaches poll, which ranked him at the top of the hardest worker, best defensive forward, and best body checker categories. Paille also was named the second best penalty killer. To accompany those accolades, Paille was also the Midwest Division winner of the Canada Post Cup, an award based on points accumulated through selections to the “Three Stars of the Game”.

The gritty forward left his Guelph teammates in midseason to represent Team Canada in the 2004 World Junior Championships in Finland. As the only returning skater from the 2003 silver medallists, Coach Mario Durocher turned to Paille for leadership, naming him the team captain. Picking up where he left off in OHL play, Paille would be a physical and offensive force at the WJC. He scored a pair of goals in a 10-0 triumph over the Ukraine in pool play.

The speedy forward’s game was best displayed in the 7-1 semi-final round victory over the Czech Republic. Playing much larger than his 6’0’’, 200-pound frame would suggest, Paille set the game’s tone by hitting every opposing jersey in site. A true “character guy”, Paille scored the game-winning goal while taking a vicious, stick shattering slash from 2004 draft hopeful, Lukas Kaspar. After a 4-3 loss to the United States in the finals, Paille would finish the tournament with four goals in six games.

Paille returned for the Storm’s final 30 contests, registering points in all but four on way to a playoff berth. The Storm defeated Mississauga in four straight games for the OHL Championship, advancing to the Memorial Cup in Kelowna, British Columbia to battle the CHL’s best for junior hockey’s top prize. The Storm ran out gas in three round robin losses, and was the first team eliminated from the tourney. As the Storm faltered, so too did Paille. He would net just one assist in Kelowna, ending a disappointing playoff year with nine goals and 18 points in 22 playoff games.

Sabres GM Darcy Regier negotiated with Paille’s IMG Hockey representatives almost down to the wire. In negotiations last May leading up to the league imposed June 1 deadline, Buffalo used similar tactics to sign another OHL standout, Derek Roy. Some in Buffalo were concerned that the Sabres were heading down a similar path taken with past picks such as Barrett Heisten and Michael Zigomanis, whose rights were relinquished after Buffalo failed to sign them in time. After trading University of Minnesota defenseman Keith Ballard (2002, 11th Overall) as part of the deal that brought Chris Drury to Buffalo, the Sabres have their remaining first rounder from the 2002 draft in the fold.

Growing up 20 minutes away from Buffalo in nearby Welland, Ontario, Paille will enter his second Sabres’ training camp this fall with the chips stacked slightly against him. With the likes of Daniel Briere (Group II RFA), Chris Drury, Adam Mair, and Roy manning the middle on the roster and depth down both wings, the most likely scenario has him developing for most or all of the 2004-2005 season with Buffalo’s AHL affiliate, the Rochester Americans. Possessing a style similar to former Sabre Michael Peca but with a better offensive skill set, seeing Paille in a Buffalo sweater at some point next season isn’t entirely out of the question. That could ultimately depend on the health of Tim Connolly (concussion), the progress of prospects like Paul Gaustad, Milan Bartovic, and Jason Pominville, as well as the potential signing of Thomas Vanek. Regardless, you can bet he’ll work hard to get there.

In juniors, Paille wore the same No. 16 as former Sabre captain Pat Lafontaine. The rest of their numbers are very different, however. Lafontaine put up an amazing 234 points in just 70 games as a QMJHL rookie, whereas Paille scored 247 points in a career spanning 239 games. Still, that doesn’t mean Paille can’t create similar excitement with bone crunching hits and clutch playmaking as a Buffalo fan favorite in years to come. A player who could “do it all” in juniors, the future is bright for this potential Selke Trophy candidate.