For the first time in his career, Buffalo Sabres' rookie Luke Adam experienced failure.
He was sent down to the minor league Rochester Americans Saturday after failing to score in his last 20 games with Buffalo.
“It was a bit of a shock,” he said after Rochester's 4-1 loss to the San Antonio Rampage. “I didn't see it coming.”
He played like someone in shock on Saturday night. Adam only registered only two shots and took two penalties, both of which San Antonio scored on. Coach Ron Rolston said the 21-year-old center played “an average game.”
Even before being demoted, his ice time had faded and he was a healthy scratch Friday night against Dallas.
“Ice time in hockey is not something you are given,” Adam said quietly, looking down at the three or four microphones below him. “It's not something that's owed to you. Nothing is owed to you in this game. I had to earn it. Obviously (coach Lindy Ruff) didn't like the way things were going.”
At the beginning of the season, there was little not to like about the way things were going. Adam scored 10 points in his first nine games and was seeing major ice time on the Sabres' top line. He was clicking with stars Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville.
Somewhere along the line, however, he fell out of favor with the coaching staff. His ice depleted to playing fewer than 10 minutes in five of the last nine games. Before packing up his gear in Buffalo, Adam talked with Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff.
“They just told me they wanted me to play,” he said. “I wasn't playing very many minutes up there, I had kind of been struggling on the score sheet, so he said he wanted me to come down here and play the power play that I'm used to playing and play the big minutes I'm used to playing.”
Why did he lose those minutes? Did Ruff explain why he was relegated to the fourth line?
“No,” he said under his breath.
Ruff wouldn't say either. All the Sabres' coach would let on was if Adam performed in Rochester, he would be back in Buffalo soon. “It's up to him,” Ruff said before Saturday night's loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning
Scouts often talk about learning how to fail. It's something most take for granted. But to many top athletes, failure is a completely foreign language.
Adam has always dominated on the ice. By age 17, he was the best player on his QMJHL's St. John's Frog Devils. He scored 66 points in 70 games and racked up 72 penalty minutes. The Sabres drafted him 44th overall in 2008 to fulfill two needs: size and depth at center.
Adam wasn't drafted in the first round because prospect evaluators originally thought he wouldn't be able to skate well enough to be a top line player in the NHL. One year later, he changed their minds. Buffalo's prospect was blowing away the QMJHL, scoring 90 points in 56 games for the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles. In 2010, at age 19, the 6-foot-2, 200 pound forward was named to the Canadian World Junior team. The expectation changed from a maybe-NHLer to a top six center.
The American Hockey League – just one step below the NHL – didn't offer the type of challenge for Adam as it does most second-round picks. Adam was named AHL Rookie of the Year after scoring 62 points in 57 games. During the 2010-11, he was given a sniff of the NHL. He played in 19 games, scoring four points.
Because of an injury to Jochen Hecht and Derek Roy's lack of chemistry with Pominville and Vanek, Ruff tapped Adam on the back to begin 2011-12 to center the two star veterans.
It seemed odd at the time. The Sabres had just signed Villie Leino to an enormous contract and dubbed the big-money forward their new solution at center. They had failed to move Roy in the off-season for a more capable two-way center and Adam hadn't shown much in his 19 games. In a way, it was disappointing that a team that had spent to the cap would have to start a rookie at No. 1 center.
But Adam eased skepticism. He scored six points in his first four games and 10 in his first nine with the Sabres. He was clicking with Vanek and Pominville. After one month he was looking like the Sabres' version of Steven Stamkos or Jeff Skinner.
Then the Cloud Nine evaporated. Whether it was the “rookie wall,” or complacency, attitude or simply poor play, is hard to tell.
Whatever the reason, the 21-year-old is learning failure. It's an important crossroads. Scouts say it can make or break a player. If he comes to terms and is motivated by it, he'll succeed. If not, he'll fail.
Adam has nearly a whole week to think about his first failure. We'll learn much more about whether he's learning the language or not on Friday night when the Americans play again at home.
Follow Matthew Coller on Twitter @matthewwgr