For Luke Adam, Friday night is a crossroads. It may very well end up being the night that he looks back on as the one that saved his career as a Buffalo Sabre or the night where the organization shrugged its collective shoulders and – as professional sports teams do – moved on.
With No. 1 center Cody Hodgson out of the lineup with a hand injury and Phil Varone likely missing with an illness, Adam will get a chance to return to his natural position on Friday night when the Rochester Americans play the Adirondack Phantoms at Blue Cross Arena. He also gets an opportunity to prove that he still deserves to be considered an NHL prospect.
To say it has been a rough stretch for the Sabres' former second-round pick would be like saying Niagara Falls is a tiny dip in a little creek near Buffalo. After opening the 2011-12 season on a tear as the Sabres' top center – paired with two All-Star caliber players in Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville – Adam fell on the depth chart to third-line winger in the AHL.
Consider that in 57 games in 2010-11 with the Portland Pirates, he scored 62 points and won AHL Rookie of the Year. But in his last 57 games (20 NHL, 37 AHL) Adam has scored 18 points. Not 18 goals. Eighteen points.
But with two quality centers out of the lineup and a history of success in the middle, Adam was really the only option.
“He's used to that position,” head coach Ron Rolston said after practice on Thursday. “He played it in Portland and in Buffalo. It's an opportunity to go into a position he's more comfortable in and have more touches in the middle of the ice.”
Since being moved to wing, the Amerks' 22-year-old forward has looked far less comfortable (and confident) than he did while scoring 20 points in his first 32 games of 2011-12. His play prompted one scout to ask, “what happened?”
That's the question that fans and likely the Sabres are asking, too. Even if he was pouting after a mid-season demotion last year (which by all indications, he wasn't), that would have worn off by now. Many Amerks players have been relishing the opportunity to play with players like forwards Marcus Foligno, who will be in the NHL as soon as the lockout ends, and Mark Mancari, who has seen years and years of AHL success. But Adam has just two goals and three assists in 10 games despite consistently being among team leaders in power play time.
Friday night, though, he might be able to answer the scout's question. Maybe he just needed to be back at center.
But there are more questions to be answered. After Adam was sent down last year, Sabres' head coach Lindy Ruff said he needed work on his defensive game.
“It's something he has to get better at to keep improving his game,” Rolston said. “I'm sure he's going to do a great job.”
Friday night's game – good or bad – won't call for an immediate change. They won't crown him the next Pat LaFontaine if he plays well and they won't trade him to the Bloomington Blaze if he plays poorly.
At the same time, if Adam can't find it at center on the top line in a game where he'll be looking across at Flyers top prospect Sean Couturier, when will he ever?