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Can Sabres prospect Zach Metsa take his underdog story all the way to the NHL?

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Zach Metsa doesn’t have a dramatic story from those draft years that passed him by. The Rochester Americans’ newly signed, 24-year-old defenseman wasn’t glued to his television or seething as NHL teams overlooked him pick after pick. He doesn’t keep a list of the defensemen drafted ahead of him as motivation.

“It almost didn’t bother me with the draft because there was no expectations,” Metsa said after a recent Amerks practice. “I just knew I had a long way to go if I wanted to play pro. I knew I would have to grind every day.”

After the Amerks finished their sweep of the Marlies to advance to the conference finals last week, Seth Appert said, “Success for this group wasn’t pre-ordained. They’ve had to work.”

The same is true of Metsa’s arduous climb to professional hockey.

Success often is pre-ordained in hockey. Matt Savoie was playing in the WHL at 15 years old. In some cases, college hockey scouting begins before players have even gotten to high school. The rush to rank and label players at younger and younger ages doesn’t leave much room for stories like Metsa.

Here he is anyway. He’s played in seven straight games for the Amerks in the AHL playoffs, helping the team erase a 0-2 series deficit to eliminate the Syracuse Crunch and then playing a role in Rochester’s sweep of Toronto in the next round. A month ago, Metsa was captaining Quinnipiac on a Frozen Four run that ended with the program’s first-ever National Championship.

“It’s been a dream,” Metsa said.

The dream has been that much sweeter because of everything that came before it. Matt Murray started coaching Metsa in the Milwaukee Jr. Admirals program when Metsa was 11. That only happened because Metsa had been cut from his local ‘A’ team. Metsa’s father knew an assistant coach that helped get him a look. Murray liked what he saw and brought him into the program.

“If I didn’t make that jump, I don’t think I’d be in this position,” Metsa said.

From there, Murray had a front-row seat to how often Metsa gets overlooked and how little it deters him.

“One day when he finds some free time, I want him to come back and speak to our program and the families and the players, because I’ve never seen or experienced a player that’s been pushed out and rose back up and pushed down and rose back up so many times,” Murray said.

Metsa was the property of six different USHL teams from the time he was 16 until he went off to college. He was drafted by four different USHL teams but his first attempts to make a team out of camp were unsuccessful. That’s why he took a detour to the BCHL, a lower-tier junior league in Canada, to play for the Merritt Centennials in British Columbia. He wanted to play for a team that wanted him and believed in his talent. The added benefit was Metsa got his first taste of being away from home. Those weren’t always easy days, but FaceTime calls with his mom helped keep him calm and focused.

After a 27-point season in the BCHL, Metsa earned a spot on the Youngstown Phantoms roster the next year, but he admits he wasn’t his best. He had 13 points in 37 games and was a minus-18 when the Phantoms traded him at the deadline to Central Illinois. At that point, he had already committed to Quinnipiac, but he knew nothing there was guaranteed if he played the way he’d been playing.

“I’ll never forget the feeling of getting traded and just the disappointment and almost embarrassment a little bit,” Metsa said. “Like, I wasn’t good enough. They don’t want me anymore. But it did help me, too. It kind of kicked me in the butt and made me think, ‘You need to figure this out. You need to really dig down and find something here before you go to school, because otherwise, the next four years might be pretty tough.”

Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold wasn’t concerned with what happened in the USHL. Even though Metsa was a minus-28 across the two teams, Pecknold realized the situation on both teams wasn’t ideal.

“It’s hard sometimes to evaluate players on bad teams,” Pecknold said. “It’s not all their fault sometimes. Especially in the junior world. It was kind of a dysfunctional setup for him there.”

Pecknold’s plan for Metsa was that he could come in and play as a seventh or eighth defenseman as a freshman and long-term settle into a spot as the fifth or sixth defenseman. But because of injuries in his first season, Metsa ended up playing forward for the first time in his competitive hockey career. He scored a crucial goal in a win against No. 1 UMass while playing forward.

“He definitely got some confidence playing forward,” Pecknold said.

There was nothing flashy about what came next. Metsa just kept overachieving. He would go home to Wisconsin in the summers to work with Murray and Mark Adamek, who coached Metsa on the U16 and U18 teams with the Admirals. Metsa never shied away from coaching and was always proactive with Pecknold and the Quinnipiac staff about what he needed to be doing in the offseason.

“I think at every level, even the NHL, guys want to fight the coaching a little bit at times,” Pecknold said. “Everybody thinks they know what they’re doing. Mets was the opposite. He was like, ‘What do you need me to do so I can be successful and play and help this team win? He’s so selfless, which is a strength.”

Metsa is 5-foot-9, so size has been a knock on him at every step of his hockey career. Adamek has marveled at Metsa’s ability to fine-tune the other parts of his game to make his lack of top-end size less of a factor.

“Zach doesn’t put himself in a whole bunch of positions where he’s going to get run over because he skates as well as he does,” Adamek said. “He’s really confident on his edges and I know he’s not going to back away from going into a corner with anyone because he knows that he can skate. He knows how to leverage himself and knows he’s strong enough on his feet to not get thrown around.

That was something Pecknold emphasized every offseason. He wanted his players to think of every possible way they could become better skaters and better athletes. Metsa did that and ended up on the second pair as a sophomore. When he was a junior, Metsa had become a top-pair player and a power-play fixture for the Bobcats.

“He’s a special player but in a really simple way,” Adamek said. “He doesn’t put himself in a bunch of vulnerable spots. He makes quick decisions, moves the puck quickly and makes high-percentage plays.”

Devon Toews, who has back-to-back 50-point seasons for the Avalanche, also came through the Quinnipiac program. He was drafted and is bigger than Metsa, but Pecknold sees a similarity in how the two think about the game and were able to control the game with their presence on the blue line.

“He makes so many high-end plays in small areas and he does it at a high pace and just has an elite, elite mind,” Pecknold said. “Really elite IQ. He has the ability, but he’s going to have to do it with his IQ and his stick, because his stick is elite defensively.”

Four years after Metsa was second-to-last in the USHL with a minus-28 plus-minus, he led college hockey in that category as a plus-38 in his senior season. He was also named an All-American by the American Hockey Coaches Association. He could have gone pro then, but Metsa felt a sense of loyalty to Quinnipiac. He had an extra year of eligibility and decided to come back to try to win a national championship. He was voted captain by his teammates and followed up his sensational senior season with another 37-point season playing to a plus-34 rating.

More importantly, though, Metsa was a catalyst to the Bobcats’ first national championship in program history. In the Frozen Four, Quinnipiac went up against Michigan and Minnesota. Against Michigan, Metsa was matched up against a line that included likely 2023 No. 2 pick Adam Fantilli, 2022 Jets first-rounder Rutger McGroarty and Gavin Brindley, who had 38 points and could be a first-rounder in the 2023 draft. The only goal that line scored came when Metsa wasn’t on the ice. Metsa had a goal of his own and was plus-2.

Against Minnesota, Metsa was matched up against a line that included Leafs prospect Matthew Knies and 2022 first-rounders Logan Cooley and Jimmy Snuggerud. That line didn’t have a point, and Quinnipiac won in overtime.

“It’s what I expected,” Pecknold said. “He’s a big-time player and a big-time person.”

Metsa soaked in every moment. His dance moves in the post-game locker room celebration went viral. He and his teammates took the national championship trophy golfing and used it as a ball marker. He became one of the faces of the program in its defining moment, and did it with more than a dozen family members in attendance at the Frozen Four in Tampa. He thought back to all the hours in his backyard rink, fetching pucks out of snow banks and getting in as many shots as he could before the 7 a.m. school bus.

“Without that, I would not be who I am today,” Metsa.

Last summer, the Sabres had Metsa at development camp. They tracked him throughout the season, and were ready to sign him after they saw what he did throughout the postseason. Appert worked for the United States National Team Development Program, so he’s familiar with Metsa’s class of players. He knows how off-the-radar Metsa was, and it only makes him more impressed with who Metsa is now.

“That whole trajectory shows what kind of inner belief and inner drive he has,” Appert said. “Others may have questioned him along the path for one reason or another but he probably never wavered himself on how good he thought he could be. That inner belief is really powerful in a person.”

Since entering the lineup in Game 2 against Syracuse, Metsa hasn’t come out. He’s fit right in, jumping straight from the NCAA tournament to the AHL playoffs. He knows the same questions that have accompanied him on every step of his hockey journey aren’t going anywhere. He’s 24, so his window is already not as wide open as younger prospects. He’s an undersized defenseman who doesn’t have the draft pedigree of some of his peers.

“He doesn’t care,” Appert said. “His potential is strong. One-hundred percent if he was 5-11 there’s teams, including us, where he’d be on an NHL deal. That’s the reality. Guys that have something against them, in his case it’s size, they just have to keep proving it and proving it. Eventually, they’ve proven it so much at so many different levels that they earn the opportunity they’re looking for. There’s a reason we gave him a two-year deal. We think there’s a window of his development that can grow and we wanted him to know that we’re invested in his development and helping him become a great pro.”

With the Sabres’ lack of defensive depth in their prospect pool, Metsa could have an opportunity to carve out a professional career. That’s something he wasn’t even sure was possible until a few years ago.

“He’s had to do it the hard way,” Adamek said.

“He’s fine with it. He’s used to it. If I had to guess, a little bit of him would probably really look forward to having the opportunity to do it again because he’s developed a real sense of confidence from having gone through all that adversity.”

Quick hits

1. The Amerks traveled to Hershey on Monday and will play game one on Tuesday night at 7 p.m. Game two is Thursday at 7 p.m., and then the Amerks return to Rochester for home games on Saturday and Monday, both at 7:05 p.m. The team announced that games one and two will be available on the MSG Networks in addition to AHL TV.

2. Matt Savoie, the Sabres’ top pick in the 2022 NHL Draft, joined the Amerks on Monday after his junior season wrapped up over the weekend. Savoie’s Winnipeg Ice lost in the WHL finals to the Seattle Thunderbirds. Savoie finished with 124 points in 81 games across the regular season and postseason. Appert said Monday that Savoie is in Rochester to play, but they want to get him adequate rest and acclimation before throwing him into game action. He traveled back to Winnipeg on Saturday night and then flew to Rochester on Sunday night to be there in time for practice Monday. He then traveled with the team to Hershey, so Appert said the Sabres want to make sure he gets a chance to catch his breath.

“Matt Savoie is here to play,” he told reporters. “When he gets acclimated, we’ll see him in the lineup.

3. Noah Ostlund, the Sabres’ second first-rounder in the 2022 NHL Draft, traveled back to Sweden after spending some time with the Amerks during their playoff run. He is rehabbing a foot injury he sustained during the season and wanted to return home to finish his rehab there.

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

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