When the Buffalo Sabres sent center Luke Adam to Rochester in early February of last season, you figured he'd be back with the Sabres a few weeks later. But the same struggles Adam had over his last 20 games in Buffalo carried over to the Flower City. In 27 games with the Amerks, Adam scored just 13 points.
Maybe next year, Sabres fans figured.
Next year came, and with it came an NHL lockout, and still the young center who scored 10 goals in his first 20 NHL games in 11-12 and earned a trip to All-Star Weekend was only seen in flashes. With Cody Hodgson, Kevin Porter and last year's Amerks point leader Phil Varone holding down the three center spots, Adam ended up on the wing. The 22-year-old has made it clear through his play and comments that he is not a winger. So he faded into the background as simply "secondary scoring." When the NHL announced on Jan. 11 that it would open its doors, Adam had just eight goals and nine assists.
Then, stuff happened. Lots of stuff.
When Lindy Ruff was fired, Porter went up to the NHL along with the Amerks' coach Ron Rolston. The move opened up the top center spot and removed the coach who had taken Adam's confidence behind a shed and shot it. The coach who had embarrassed him by making the young center a healthy scratch the game after he returned from All-Star Weekend. The coach who had more or less said "don't let the door hit you" following Adam's demotion.
Not that Adam was without blame. Make no mistake, his play had faded from his fast start centering Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek. But Ruff's grind-it-out, boot-strap pull-up, walk-it-off coaching style was NOT for Adam.
Now the former second-round draft pick is the Amerks' No. 1 center. And the guy who won AHL Rookie of the Year is back. Give credit to the not-so walk-it-off style of current Amerks coach Chadd Cassidy, who has probably figured out that Adam would rather have a coach who gives him support rather than tearing him down.
"We told him, 'Luke this is essentially your hockey team,'" Cassidy said. "This is your time to be the guy that leads us every night. For a young player that's a lot to take on, but to me he's shown a lot of signs that he's ready for it."
Adam was the first star in Wednesday's 3-1 win over Binghamton with two points. He was also the leader of the Amerks' most dominating line with Max Legualt and Nick Tarnasky.
Now hold your shock until the end, but Cassidy said the biggest difference in Adam's game is confidence.
"He feels a lot more confidence now when he gets the puck," the Amerks' coach said. "He's starting to feel like he can contribute offensively every night."
The change in Adam's confidence was obvious on Wednesday night. He received a pass from defenseman Matt Mckenzie near center ice, drove to the net on a 2-on-1 and took the shot himself. The shot was quick off his stick and jetted past goalie Nathan Lawson.
"I'm pretty comfortable with the puck right now," Adam said, shortly after receiving first star honors. "I'm getting back to where I'm used to being. You know, controlling the play, making plays, getting opportunities...it feels nice."
While his offensive game has come back to life with five points in his last five games, it's Adam's defensive effort on Wednesday that was equally as eye-catching. The Senators only put 19 shots on net and Adam made several impressive plays in his own end. Last week, Cassidy said he's seen improvements in his young center's defensive game.
Still, it's hard to say whether Adam will see the NHL again with the Sabres. The future at center is Hodgson, Mikhail Grigorenko, Zemgus Girgensons and maybe Tyler Ennis. Sometimes in pro sports, there are no second chances.
So for now, all Adam can do is lead the Amerks - maybe to the playoffs. But he's come a long way from having no shot at returning to the NHL during Ruff's tenure to putting pressure on the organization to reconsider.
Max Legault contributing more and more...
Max Legault deserves major credit for the Amerks' last two wins. On Sunday, he played a strong game on the fourth line, helping to dominate puck possession against Abbotsford. He played with Adam and Nick Tarnasky and produced both offensively and defensively. He scored a goal, finishing an excellent pass from Tarnasky. He also dominated on the forecheck, making it difficult on Binghamton's defenseman to get the puck to their forwards.
"For me it's different," Legault said. "Playing the second line now, I'm used to being a fourth line type of grinder. I'm still doing that work, it's just in a different way. My role doesn't change, I'm filling a spot and I'm happy with it."
Legualt is in his third year as a "grinder" for the Sabres' organization. His performance this season may put him on the map to compete for a fourth line NHL spot. He's killed penalties, played a physical and shut-down game and is an all-effort player. Basically, he's Rochester's version of Patrick Kaleta without the bad penalties. Could he be Buffalo's at some point? He's earning some consideration.
Ellis scored his third goal as an Amerk. There isn't much to say about Ellis that hasn't been said, but it's impossible to quantify what he's meant to the Amerks' turnaround after losing their first three under Cassidy. They are 5-0-1 in their last six games and sit in 5th place in the Western Conference.