Gryba grabs hold of opportunity on Ottawa Senators defence

During the first two weeks of Eric Gryba’s National Hockey League career, the Ottawa Senators newest defenceman has welcomed a stream of family and friends from his first home in Saskatoon.

During the first two weeks of Eric Gryba’s National Hockey League career, the Ottawa Senators newest defenceman has welcomed a stream of family and friends from his first home in Saskatoon.

His mother, Catherine, was at Air Canada Centre in Toronto for his big-league debut on Feb. 16. Last Saturday, a group of close pals from the Prairies were in the stands at Scotiabank Place when the Battle of Ontario resumed.

On Wednesday, Gryba will pay a return visit to his second home in Boston, in preparation for Thursday’s game against the Boston Bruins. Gryba spent four years at Boston University, winning a pair of Beanpot titles and an NCAA championship, before graduating with a business administration degree.

“I’m taking some buddies out for dinner,” Gryba says with a smile, “but they’ve got to buy their own tickets.”

If it sounds a little fast and furious, Gryba wouldn’t have it any other way. After spending two and a half seasons in Binghamton of the American Hockey League waiting for his NHL chance, the 24-year-old is embracing the feeling. It certainly helps that the Senators are 5-1 with him in the lineup.

“It’s a once in a lifetime experience and if it happens to end here shortly, I want to make sure I (enjoy) every moment of it,” he says.

Modesty aside, Gryba isn’t going back to Binghamton any time soon.

Recalled from the minors on Feb. 15, after Erik Karlsson suffered his season-ending Achilles tear, Gryba has stood out by standing up opponents and by delivering all-around sound defensive play. In Binghamton, he had five goals, six assists and 75 penalty minutes in 38 games with Binghamton and led the AHL with a plus/minus of plus 28.

With Ottawa, Gryba has a pair of assists in his six games, but unlike Karlsson, his impact isn’t measured by offensive statistics. It’s more about hits (15), blocked shots (13) and winning tough battles on the boards and around the net. He’s a fixture when the Senators are killing penalties. Usually paired with Marc Methot, Gryba’s ice time has grown steadily from 16 minutes per game to 20 minutes to 22 minutes to the 23:15 he turned in during Monday’s 2-1 shootout victory over the Montreal Canadiens. Only Sergei Gonchar (24:11) and Methot (23:58) played more.

Methot wasn’t sure what to expect when Gryba stepped into Karlsson’s spot, but he has been “wonderfully surprised” by the chemistry they’ve developed together. “We’re kind of relishing having that shutdown pair role,” says Methot.

Gryba welcomes the “vote of confidence” he’s received from Senators coach Paul MacLean.

MacLean says both Gryba and winger David Dziurzynski have played more than the coaching staff would have originally expected.

“But we are also a team of opportunity and the best players play,” he said. “If you’re playing the best, we should have you you on the ice.”

In the process, MacLean says, a message has been sent to himself, general manager Bryan Murray and assistant general manager Tim Murray.

“Some of them think they should have been here for a long time and that we’re pretty dumb to have them in Binghamton all this time,” he says. “Now that they have the opportunity, they’re making it really, really hard to not have them here.”

All the praise for Gryba comes in a season where he began deep down on the defensive depth chart. Despite injuries to Jared Cowen and Mike Lundin, he wasn’t invited to the club’s mini-training camp following the lockout. Perhaps it’s the benefit of maturity — a full four years of college, coupled with more than two years in Binghamton — but Gryba insists that he has never allowed himself to get worried about all the Internet noise, trying to figure out where he fit in.

“It’s quicksand,” he says. “You’ve got to focus on the things that are going to make you successful, not looking too much in the media or what other (non-coaches) have to say. It can kill you. Mentally, it’s draining, whether it’s good things or bad things. I’m not on forums, I’m not trying to figure out what people are saying about me.”

However, he acknowledges that his father, Shawn, has spent time trying to keep tabs. Shawn Gryba is unable to travel due to recent ankle surgery, but he has seen every minute of Senators action.

“I’m pretty sure he’s on every forum every day,” Gryba says, with a laugh. “He knows more about what’s going on than I do.”

There is a certain anonymity that comes with the role of defensive defenceman. Even when Gryba was at Boston University, he was somewhat in the background. Among defencemen, the big offensive stats were owned by Matt Gilroy, the former Senator and current New York Ranger and Kevin Shattenkirk, now playing for St. Louis.

Legendary Boston University coach Jack Parker always recognized Gryba’s value.

“Sometimes, all people look at is the guys who are getting the points and some people feel that you can find the stay at home types anywhere, but the bottom line is that every team needs at least two of them,” says Parker, the Brian Kilrea of NCAA hockey, having been behind the Boston University bench since 1973. “Eric was a mature kid, with great hockey sense. He has always been a very strong skater, who gets around the rink well. He makes good first decisions with the puck. He’s not an end to end guy, but he’s a real physical presence, a real competitive guy.”

Gryba knows what he is. If he’s going to make a new home in Ottawa long term, it will be because he delivers more bash than flash.

“I’m not here to make headlines,” he says. “I’m still far from perfect. I have a lot of things to work on and improve on.”

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