Phil Varone is wearing a San Francisco Giants hat, but he's really a Toronto Blue Jays fan. He grew up in Vaughan, Ontario, about 15 minutes away from downtown Toronto, so he's always cheered for them. The Rochester Americans' center wanted to make it to more Jays games last year, but they stunk – like they have for much of his life.
He says this year's going to be different. After Toronto's mega trade with the Miami Marlins that resulted in Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson and a host of others coming North, he's looking forward to his team one-upping the Yankees and Red Sox.
“The hat looks good, that doesn't mean I like the Giants,” he jokes while waiting for teammate Alex Biega to finish being interviewed.
With Varone standing there listening, Beiga shoehorns a reference to his pal into the answer, calling him “Philly Cheese,” while trying to keep a straight face. Beiga loses his train of thought, then tries to recover by spinning off back-to-back cliches. One day at a time. Doing what I can to help the team. Like the Jose Reyes and Jose Bautista of cliches. He laughs when that's pointed out.
The 24-year-old defenseman had spent the previous 10 minutes giving detailed answers about his role, his chemistry with T.J. Brennan and the team's overall direction.
“We need to approach every game with the same mindset,” he says referring to the team's hard-working overtime loss on Saturday against one of the league's best teams, the Toronto Marlies.
The Amerks are struggling. They've lost seven of their last 10 games, but coach Ron Rolston said the team is feeling much more confident after the OT loss on the road Saturday. Biega says the team's start reminds him of last year, when the Amerks sputtered early but made a playoff run. It isn't even close to panic time yet, he says.
“Sometimes losing a couple games can teach you a lesson and help you in the long run,” he says.
Biega and Varone are a lot alike. Amazingly, they were both the 147th pick in the NHL's entry level draft. Biega in '06, Varone in '09. Biega is 5-foot-10, 191-pounds. Varone is 5-foot-10, 186-pounds. They both played a career-high in games last season with the Amerks (Biega 65, Varone 76) and, to stretch even farther, they were both born on the 4th.
Neither is considered a top prospect. Both want to be in the NHL more than anything. Both are the exact type of players the Buffalo Sabres' organization loves to have in their minor league system.
With the NHL locked out, the AHL has an incredible amount of talent. Any player still on an entry level contract is eligible for the AHL. The Amerks have already faced Devils' Calder Trophy finalist Adam Henrique, Flyers prospect Brayden Schenn, Leafs prospect Nazem Kadri and the list goes on. Of course, they have Marcus Foligno and Cody Hodgson.
Playing against and with NHLers is an incredible opportunity for players like Biega and Varone.
Last year, in a discussion about the AHL vs. NHL, a scout said, “the toughest part to evaluate is how a player will adjust to the speed of the NHL. There's no way to replicate the speed.”
This year, the AHL is replicating the speed and under-sized, late-round draft picks like Biega and Varone have a chance to show everyone that they can keep up.
“If you can prove to people you can play against those players and be a top defenseman at that level, that's an opportunity every different night,” Biega says.
So far, they are taking advantage. After being a healthy scratch to start the year, Biega has worked his way into being a top-four defenseman. He's paired with T.J. Brennan, who played 11 games in the NHL last year and he's succeeding at even-strength with nine ES points in 16 games. Most defenseman get the lion's share of their numbers on the power play.
“T.J and Alex really are playing well together,” Rolston said. “They are supporting each other. And right now, a lot of our offense is being created by our blue line work and defensive corps and those two guys have been a big part of that.”
When the NHL comes back, teams may (should) start focusing more on players who succeed at 5-on-5 than those who are great power play players. The league hit its lowest number of power plays per game since the mid-70s, making specialists less valuable. Barring a rule change, Biega's work is good for his cause.
As for Varone, his scoring rate isn't quite what it was last year – seven points in 17 games – but, in hockey, ice time is proof of overall performance. Rolston has been giving Varone top-six minutes with the Amerks' best forwards and power play time.
Here's another thing they have in common: If Biega and Varone end up earning games in The Show, it will be because they have great “makeup.”
Makeup is a term used by scouts and execs to describe all the things that are unquantifiable about a player. Does he work hard? Does he stick up for teammates? Does he have heart? Is he a winner? All these things and much more are considered.
Biega and Varone, for similar reasons, have top-level makeup. Biega is bright (he went to Harvard, after all), he's a good teammate and a hard worker.
“Even though he's not as big as some of the other guys back there, his competitive nature is outstanding,” Rolston said of Biega.
Varone is confident, tough and never gives up. Too often, writing these things comes off as cliché, but the Sabres' organization looks long and hard for players with these traits.
Varone is competitive, too.
On Monday, after Biega finished his interview, Varone was annoyed at a question about facing NHL players in the AHL.
“I want to be better than those guys,” he said gnashing his teeth.
“It's a little different to hear I was expected to look out of place, but it's been good,” he said in a far, far different tone than the one used to talk about the Blue Jays.
At first, it was confusing why he, a fifth-round draft pick and free agent signee, would be annoyed with a compliment about looking good against NHL players. But it all makes sense when you consider his makeup.
Varone doesn't just want to hang with the NHL players, he wants to rip them apart. He doesn't just want to have a cup of coffee, he wants to be a star. It's insulting to suggest anything less.
His attitude is one that scouts and evaluators love to see. It's irreplaceable and unteachable.
Having the most competitive players helps the Amerks win, no question. But guys like Varone also push every other player, including the ones projected to be stars, to work harder to keep up with him.
This is by design.
Biega and Varone are just two in a group of players on the Amerks roster with great makeup. Mark Mancari is a class guy with a dream to play every night in the NHL. Evan Rankin should have given up a long time ago but kept pressing and earned an AHL contract and top-six spot, Joe Finley battled injuries for years before making his NHL debut last year, Max Legault is a fearless seventh-round pick and David Leggio went from backup goalie in Finland to team MVP...and the list goes on.
Varone said he wasn't offended by the question, but walked off with a chip on his shoulder – the same one he'll have on Friday night when he takes faceoffs against Flyers NHLer Sean Couturier.
And the Sabres wouldn't have it any other way.
Follow Matthew Coller on Twitter @matthewwgr