The biggest knock on Luke Adam had been his defensive game. Key word: Had.
When Adam was sent back to Rochester toward the end of the 2011-12 season, coach Lindy Ruff said he needed to show a great deal of improvement in his own zone to be a full-time NHL player.
“He needs to move his feet all the time instead of floating around,” one scout said at the time.
Ironically enough, the turnaround in the former second-round pick's own-zone game started after Ruff was fired and Amerks coach Chadd Cassidy began emphasizing the importance of Adam as a team leader.
“I told Luke, this is your team now,” Cassidy said following captain Kevin Porter's promotion to Buffalo in February last year.
This season, the 23-year-old forward has been on the ice in big situations for Cassidy, including penalty killing and defensive zone faceoffs late in close games.
The thing about defensive skill is that people's perception – including coaches, fans, other players, media – is often based on what other people say about it. If teams think a guy is good defensively in juniors, it is like winning the lottery – you're set for life as a “two-way” player.
It works the opposite way, too. And Adam landed on the wrong side of the set-for-life coin when he struggled defensively at age 21 in the NHL against the world's best.
After the initial frustration of being sent to Rochester wore off – which took awhile – the Sabres' prospect has done all he could to rid himself of the “one dimensional” tag.
The numbers are much improved across the board. Last year he scored 37 points in 62 games and was minus-10. This year he has 39 points in 37 games and is plus-10. Huge, huge improvement. He was also an AHL All-Star.
The culmination of his change was exemplified in one play on Friday night against San Antonio. With the Amerks and Rampage tied at one, San Antonio was making a mostly-uncontested defensive zone exit. Adam had swung back around their net and started hustling back toward the puck carrier. A slight fumble of the puck by the the Rampage defenseman, led to Adam stealing the puck away. Seconds later, the Amerks drew a penalty.
Seconds later, Adam set up the Amerks' second goal of the game on a perfect pass to Brayden McNabb.
That is the other thing about defense: Bad plays are always remembered, great plays are often forgotten. The goal made it easy to pass over a strong backcheck – one that would have been a float-back a year ago – that led to the power play. Every event is interconnected, but we are trained to recall the ones that NHL Network would highlight.
“He's become a 200-foot player,” Cassidy said Friday night. “It is what we have tried to emphasize to him since we have been working with him. He has the gift to score goals, but if the coach doesn't feel he can put you out there and play in situations in your own zone or difficult situations, you are not going to get those offensive opportunities.
“He has made that commitment, he's been really good for us.”
There are still facets of Adam's defensive game that he is working to improve. Skating, for one. At 6-foot-2, 200-pounds, the St. John's native used his stick reach and size to play defense in the past. But at the AHL and NHL level, a lot of people are big. It is unlikely he will ever be an above average skater, so he has to make up for the shortcoming with effort – as he did on the play to steal the puck Friday night.
After the game, Adam was pleased to hear of his coach's compliment.
“That's what every player wants to be called,” he said. “Maybe when I was a little younger that was one of the knocks on me...that is something I've worked on and continue to work on. You can always get better.”
Now that he has shown improvement in his defensive game, the question is whether he can get back to being a full-time NHL player. The short answer is that he has earned another look at it, both offensively and defensively.
The long answer is that it is complicated. Sabres' GM Tim Murray has said he wants to keep the Amerks together this year and compete for a championship. That would likely mean players like Adam will stay in Rochester, even if they are worthy of NHL time. His future is muddied by RFA status at the end of the year and even the possibility of being traded at the deadline.
So we do not really know where this will go. But it is going the right way.
-Goalie Nathan Lieuwen was excellent against one of the league's most impressive teams. He stopped 25 of 27 shots, many of them while his team was short-handed. Lieuwen's success is looking less and less like a product of small sample and more like he is as good as his numbers say
-Chad Ruhwedel returned to the lineup after being a healthy scratch. He played a strong game, save for one play along the wall that led to a San Antonio short-handed goal
-Phil Varone has been nothing short of terrific since being sent back to Rochester, scoring a goal in his third straight game and adding an assit
-Kevin Porter's stat line didn't look sexy, but he was 3-star worthy with his penalty killing efforts. The Amerks held San Antonion 0-for-6 on the PK and Porter was terrific breaking up passes and getting in shot lanes