By Bill Hoppe
A single goal could bust his slump, Sabres rookie Luke Adam, an early-season Calder Trophy candidate, keeps reminding himself. That’s his new mantra.
“For a guy like me, that’s had success scoring his whole career, get one — that’s what I keep telling myself — ‘Get one. Get one.’ It should open back up for me,” an upbeat Adam said Wednesday following practice inside the First Niagara Center.
The Sabres return to action at 7:30 p.m. Friday with a home game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Buffalo lost 2-0 in Toronto on Tuesday.
Right now, with one goal in 16 games and zero in the last 10, Adam might be struggling as badly as ever.
With the exception of his first junior season and a 19-game NHL taste last season,
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Adam usually scores prolifically. He tallied 107 times over his final three QMJHL campaigns, and then 29 times in 57 AHL contests last year.
Adam began this season scorching, tallying four goals in the first four games and nine in the first 26. He’s been stuck on 10 goals since Dec. 17.
The 21-year-old’s not even creating chances. He doesn’t have an assist in the past 15 games.
“I’m not getting any points at all,” Adam said. “It’s even a confidence booster when your linemates are scoring or you’re setting up goals. Unfortunately, that’s not happening right now. It’s frustrating. But at the same time, you just stick with it, tell yourself it’s going to come.”
Adam enjoyed much of his early success centering Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek, a dynamic wing duo. He’s moved around in recent months, however, mostly playing left wing.
He just skated beside Matt Ellis and Cody McCormick, a surprising trio considering the Sabres rarely put their slick prospects on the fourth line. Adam moved up and played with Pominville and Jochen Hecht on Tuesday when Vanek (illness) left the Sabres’ 2-0 loss in Toronto early.
“Even when I bumped him up,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said, “there were a couple of opportunities where he just didn’t make the plays. He’s probably lost a lot of confidence right now, and it’s tough. So you turn to your veteran guys and you hope that they could turn it for you, and in the meantime you hope that Luke can find a little confidence.”
Not surprisingly, Adam, who’s still green defensively – he was a minus-4 once this season – has seen his ice time dip under 10 minutes twice in the last five games.
But the ice is tied to his offensive production.
“It isn’t about the defensive shortcomings – it’s about the amount of plays he’s made, even in (Tuesday’s) game,” Ruff said. “If Luke was getting four or five chances a game that part of the ice time would go up.”
Adam added: “It’s something you got to earn.”
Of course, Adam’s hardly alone. Nearly everyone’s struggling to score.
Other than Adam, Pominville (14 goals), Vanek (19) and Drew Stafford (seven), no healthy forward has more than four goals.
“You look around, there’s 30-goal scorers, 40-goal scorers, 20-goal scorers all over the place,” Adam said. “It’s puzzling sometimes. …. The hockey gods aren’t on our side right now.”
For now, Adam, a natural center, will remain on the side. Despite a strong stretch as a pivot early and the Sabres’ lack of depth down the middle, Ruff wants Adam playing the wing.
“Luke’s ability to play in the middle is going to come,” he said. “I think he had an up and down year last year in the American League in the middle. … He’s played a lot of left wing. … We’ll see what happens.”
Adam, who said he’ll play anywhere, prefers center.
“I’ve gotten a lot better at supporting the puck in my own end, battling down low and becoming more of a complete centerman,” Adam said. “But wherever the coach wants me to play (is fine).”
Ruff, who called winger Patrick Kaleta a “marked man” man following his questionable charging penalty in Toronto, said Wednesday one of the NHL’s top hitters has adjusted his style.
The league’s been cracking down on hitting under new discipline czar Brendan Shanahan.
Ruff said Kaleta’s “trying to do the right things” and has a “target on his back.”
“It’s disappointing. … I understand there’s a level of concern with what’s gone on with concussions,” Ruff said. “But you can’t take the good hits out of the game. We’ve asked Pat to tone it down.”
Ruff added: “He’s going to have to change the way he hits. He can’t come from a distance.”
A visibly frustrated Kaleta, normally smiling and quick to joke, gave terse answers to questions about his play.
Is he a marked man?
“I guess so. I’m just going to go out and play.”
Is he playing differently?
“Just trying to skate and use my speed.”
How does he do that?
“I have to find a way or else I won’t be here.”
Kaleta, banned four games for head-butting in November, said, “If the hit’s there, then I’ll take it. I mean, I don’t think yet this year I’ve hit anyone hard.”
He said it’s getting hard to decipher a clean hit and an illegal one.