by Dan Hickling || AHL On The Beat Archive
Very large and very lonely.
That’s the figure cut routinely by Portland rookie defenseman Paul Baier on days that the Pirates hold morning practice in their Cumberland County Civic Center home.
Long after all others have trudged off the ice following one of Pirates coach Kevin Dineen’s demanding sessions, Baier remains.
He stays behind to work on his skating, starting and stopping until his legs ache and his lungs burn.
Then come the shooting drills.
Baier blasts one puck after another at the unguarded target, firing away a hundred times or more.
Then, when even he (or the Civic Center Zamboni driver waiting to clean the ice) has had enough, Baier slides a red milk crate toward the net and begins picking up every last puck.
He may not be exactly living the dream.
But with every extra minute spent on the ice, he figures he’s getting one moment closer.
Or maybe buying himself a little more game action time from Dineen, who like most good coaches, regards ice time as an earned privilege and not a right.
“You want to put your best foot forward,” said Baier. “You want to make a good impression. You never know. That’s kind of my attitude.”
Baier, a 6-foot-4, 225-pounder out of Brown University, made a strong first impression on the Pirates coaching staff.
“The thing I like about Paul,” said Pirates assistant Eric Weinrich, who enjoyed a lengthy NHL career as a defenseman, “is that you’re going to get 100 percent effort from him all the time. He’s just one of those guys who is willing to do whatever it takes to make it as a pro. He’s one that you’d love to see succeed.”
Baier’s road to success took a sharp detour last March, soon after he wrapped up his career at Brown.
A third-round draft pick by the Los Angeles Kings back in 2004, Baier was all set to step into a spot with the Manchester Monarchs, the Kings’ AHL farm club, for the stretch run.
But Baier was with the Monarchs for just a few days, then was cut loose without ever getting into a game.
That was four years of anticipation turned to vapor in a hurry.
“I was there (Manchester) for a week,” Baier said. “They were in a playoff race, and they had a lot of guys. It wasn’t a good transition time for them and for me. To pick it up on the fly. That didn’t really work out, but it ended up working out for me.”
That’s because Baier landed on his skates when the Buffalo Sabres signed him and sent him to Rochester, which was in the process of stumbling to the AHL’s worst record.
Baier, however, did well enough to make the Sabres want to bring him along when they relocated their farm operation to Portland this year.
“I’m glad I ended up here,” he said. “I couldn’t be happier with the way things have turned out.”
Baier is still adjusting to the speed and rigors of the pro game. With that, he said, is the task of building up his frame, as well as maximizing his Ivy League-trained mind.
“Getting stronger was one (crucial) thing,” he said. “There are a lot of big strong guys at this level. Everything’s just a little crisper at this level. More thought out. It’s a smarter game than at the college level. You have to work hard, but you have to think quite a bit.”
Of course, a thousand extra laps and a million extra pucks don’t mean much without the game performance to back it up.
However, Baier is playing well enough to keep himself in the Pirates’ prospect laden line up.
“He did everything he had to do to make the team this year,” said Weinrich. “Now he’s getting a chance to play. He’s done a lot of good things.”
And many more, by himself. On his own time.