When the Buffalo Sabres traded away Derek Roy, they created a massive hole in their lineup. As maligned as he was in Buffalo, Roy was still the closest thing the Sabres had to a first-line centre. He was second in ice time among Buffalo forwards behind Jason Pominville and played in all situations. The issue was that he didn’t perform like a first-line centre during the 2011-12 season, finishing with the lowest point-per-game rate of his career since his rookie season.
With just 44 points to go along with previous disappointments, Roy didn’t leave many missing him in Buffalo. In some ways, he was seen as a symbol of the soft Sabres that did little in response to Milan Lucic running over Ryan Miller. That he was traded for Steve Ott, a rough-and-tumble forward known more for his physical play than his offensive prowess, shows the attempt at a culture shift for the Sabres.
While ostensibly a winger, Ott was the Stars’ best faceoff man, taking over 1000 draws in 2011-12. Where the Sabres failed with Ville Leino, they’ll be trying again with Ott. What he isn’t, however, is a first line centre.
The Sabres seem to be well-aware of this issue, turning to youth to fill the void. The Sabres drafted two talented centres in the first round of the 2012 draft in Mikhail Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons, acquired Cody Hodgson from the Vancouver Canucks, and will look to Tyler Ennis to play a larger role. The first-line spot appears to be Hodgson’s to lose – The Hockey News, NHL.com, and various fan blogs all have Hodgson pencilled in already – but Ennis still has a shot, as does Grigorenko, who might make the team as an 18-year-old.
There is one young centre, however, who seems to have been forgotten: Luke Adam.
Just a little under a year ago, Adam was already the Sabres’ first-line centre and was receiving early (very early) Calder Trophy buzz after scoring 6 points in the first 5 games of the season. After a few games without a point, he hit his stride again, scoring 5 points in a 4-game pointstreak to give him 11 points in 11 games. He even took part in the All-Star Weekend as one of the rookies in the skills competition.
You might actually be wondering what happened to him after that. He simply seemed to disappear. Sabres fans wondered the same thing.
After 20 points in his first 32 games, Adam scored none over his next 20. He frequently rode the bench and was banished to the press box, until he was finally sent down to the AHL to find his scoring touch. He didn’t, scoring just 13 points in 27 games. All in all, it was a profoundly disappointing season for the young centre that showed such promise at the start of the year.
Then, with the emergence of Ennis as a legitimate scoring threat and the acquisition of Hodgson, Adam seemed to be the odd man out. But then the Roy trade left a hole down the middle of the Sabres’ lineup and Adam might just be the right player to step in.
The three players actually have a lot in common: less than a year separates Ennis, Hodgson, and Adam. Hodgson and Adam are each entering their third professional season and second in the NHL. All three are 22, with Adam the youngest and Ennis the oldest of the trio, meaning he has an extra year of professional hockey under his belt. Both Ennis and Adam were named the AHL rookie of the year in their first professional seasons, but Adam was the more prolific scorer of the two, putting up 29 goals in 57 games and adding 33 assists to finish as a better than point-per-game player.
Ennis scored 65 points in 69 AHL games, but, more impressively, added 9 points in 10 NHL games during a brief call-up. Hodgson, for his part, scored just 30 points in 52 AHL games in his first professional season.
Both Ennis and Hodgson, however, progressed to topping 40 points in their rookie NHL seasons. Ennis scored 20 goals, while Hodgson had 19. Add in that Ennis scored 34 points in 48 games during an injury-shortened 2011-12 campaign and you can see why fans might not be paying much attention to Adam and his 20-point rookie season that came far short of expectations.
I have a feeling that the Sabres’ management and coaching staff are paying a lot closer attention to Adam, however, and it has everything to do with the Roy trade.
When it comes to skillset and demeanour, Hodgson is a Roy-type. Ennis is even smaller than Roy. Neither is particularly tough as hockey traditionally measures toughness and with the Sabres leaning towards the traditional toughness end of the scale, they may be more willing to give a bigger body a shot at the top spot, particularly since he already saw some success in that role.
While Adam is not a physical player, he has the size to avoid being pushed around at the NHL level. He also doesn’t have the injury troubles that derailed Hodgson’s development earlier in his career and saw Ennis spending much of last season on the IR. While he certainly has his weaknesses and is coming off a demoralizing rookie season, I believe Adam might be primed for a much better sophomore year.
It seems like it’s easy to forget that Adam is the youngest of these three players. His promotion to the top line at the beginning of last season placed a lot of expectation on the rookie and, when he struggled and saw his ice time diminished, he seemed to crumble under the weight. With a full off-season to refocus, Adam should be a lot more prepared for the role.
While Ennis seems to be more naturally a winger, he was transitioned into a centre last season, while Adam is naturally a centre but has has been slowly transitioned to the wing. With Ennis looking primed for a regression and the uncertainty of Hodgson outside of the sheltered system in Vancouver, all three might end up battling for the number one spot throughout the season.
If either Hodgson or Ellis struggles or begins to get pushed around, Adam might end up with a very quick promotion.