In his first 20 games for the Rochester Americans last season, it kind of looked that way. The under-sized center scored just six points. He was a minus-4 and had zero goals.
The previous year, he had scored 81 points in 55 games in the Ontario Hockey League. But going from the OHL to the American Hockey League is like going from junior high to varsity. It was easy to assume all of the McNabb-sized defenseman were too much.
And then, somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the light went on. All of the sudden, opposing players stopped looking like the Kodak building and his game took off.
Four months later, Varone finished as the Rochester Americans' leading scorer with 52 points in 76 games. You don't have to be a math whiz to figure out that's nearly a point per game during the second half of the season. He added three more points in three playoff games.
The ever-changing circumstances of life in the minor leagues played a large role in his takeoff. The Amerks' parent club Buffalo Sabres saw an astonishing amount of injuries during November and December that forced call-up after call-up. With several top line Amerks players skating in downtown Buffalo, it was now or now. He picked “now” and started scoring in bunches.
This year, however, it would seem circumstances are not in his favor. With the NHL locked out and the cancellation of games inevitable, Varone goes from the slotted No. 1 center to the No. 3 with NHL'ers Kevin Porter and Cody Hodgson now on the Amerks' roster.
“I don't think about that,” Varone said. “If I thought about it last year, I probably wouldn't be here. I just come in and play my game. Whatever the team needs, I'll do. That's all I really have to say about it.”
The uphill battle isn't anything new. Every low-round draft pick faces the pedigree problem. But the presence of good young NHL players turns a tough climb into Kilimanjaro.
He doesn't look at it that way. The 21-year-old said he may end up with less ice time, but with nearly the entire Sabres' coaching staff and general manager Darcy Regier attending practices, he gets a chance to show them what he can do first hand.
“In practice with healthy competition and better players and with the brass here it kind of helps me in the sense that I can show my stuff,” Varone said. “They can see me not only on the ice but as a person as well. They can see where my head is at and my work ethic.”
If you think the Amerks have quality NHL'ers playing the AHL during the lockout, take a look around. To the East, Adam Henrique. To the West, Jordan Eberle. To the North Nazem Kadri. To the South Braden Holtby. All of them stars. All of them will spend at least some of this year in the AHL.
For Varone, it's a chance to stack himself up against guys who are the real deal.
“I think it's a good scenario for him,” Amerks head coach Ron Rolston said. “He's going to get a lot better.”
During the Amerks' first pre-season game against the Wilkes-Barre Penguins, the No. 3 center impressed the No. 1 veteran leader on the club Mark Mancari.
“That Phil Varone is a hell of a player in my eyes,” Mancari said after the game.
It might be tomorrow, it might not be until next season that the NHL and its players reach a new Collective Bargaining Agreement and end the lockout.
Varone doesn't care if they stay locked out all year. He likes knocking down tall buildings.