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Gaustad hones skills, mulls sketchy future

Ex-Winter Hawk makes strides with Rochester in the AHL

Not that he looks too far ahead, but Paul Gaustad worries that he will be out of work a year from now.

The NHL and its players likely will be entrenched in contract negotiations, and teams probably will lock out their players. The effects of the anticipated impasse could trickle down to the American Hockey League, which Gaustad has been playing in the last two years.

'Nobody knows what's going to happen,' says Gaustad, a second-year pro and center for the Rochester Americans, Buffalo's AHL affiliate. 'They're telling guys to save their money. It's scary.'

So, if Gaustad cannot work, he would return to Portland for more college.

'One of the good things about a (pro) contract is they do pay for my education,' says the 2000 Beaverton High grad. 'I've always wanted to get a college education.'

Gaustad tasted the NHL for the first time last spring, a year removed from playing for the Portland Winter Hawks. He played in one game against Colorado, getting nine shifts.

After training camp, the Sabres sent him back to Rochester to work on his game Ñ primarily his quickness and skating. He has played mostly on the Americans' checking, grinder line, and he had only four goals and nine assists Ñ and a minus-10 rating Ñ in his first 41 games. He also had 95 penalty minutes, on pace to break last year's total of 137.

Last season, playing on Rochester's power play, he had 14 goals and 39 assists Ñ with a plus-2 rating Ñ in 80 games.

'Just putting in my time,' says Gaustad, who turns 22 on Feb. 3. 'I'm trying to step in wherever I can, same thing I did with the Winter Hawks.'

The Sabres wouldn't tell Gaustad how close he came to making their team.

'I got three exhibition games in, had two goals and an assist,' he says. 'I played well. That's all I wanted to do, and they were happy with my camp. They just wanted me to improve in Rochester.'

He doesn't allow himself to get frustrated with languishing in the minors, because 'they know better than I do if I'm ready or not. I trust their judgment.'

In the meantime, Gaustad runs into former Winter Hawks on many teams Ñ figuratively and literally.

When the Americans played Cleveland in an exhibition game, Gaustad dumped the puck into the corner and chased after it, jumping around a defenseman in the process. The defenseman hit Gaustad's stick upward, which clipped a trailing player in the face. Gaustad went back to the bench and asked, ' 'Who'd I hit?' '

'Valette,' his teammates told him. It was Craig Valette, Gaustad's former Winter Hawk teammate.

'He was fine, but I was giving him crap about it,' Gaustad says. 'Craig and I are pretty good friends. He's getting a lot more ice time; he's a grinder, and he's getting under the skin of a lot of guys on our team.'

Another former Portland teammate, Josef Balej, leads Hamilton and sits among the league leaders with 23 goals, 46 points and a plus-19 rating. Joey Hope plays for the Philadelphia Phantoms.

A former Winter Hawk from pre-Gaustad days, goalie Jason LaBarbera, has eight shutouts for Hartford, one shy of the AHL record; he is 4-0-2 in his last six games, allowing only three goals on 147 shots. He also played briefly with the New York Rangers this season.

Gaustad's brother also has turned pro. B.J. Gaustad, another Beaverton High grad, plays at Muskegon, Mich., in the United Hockey League, a teammate of former Hawk Todd Robinson.

They all want to get where Gaustad was for one game last spring.

'It was kind of surreal,' he says of his brief appearance with Buffalo. 'I tried to soak everything in. I had a blast, even though it was for one day. I was all smiles up there. I was just trying not to screw up.'

So far, he has improved in certain areas Ñ he is playing more physical hockey, and is on pace for 180 penalty minutes this year, all without a lot of major fighting.

'It's my game,' he says, of playing physical. 'I'm trying to be as physical as possible.'

Maybe he'll get an opportunity to simply play next season.