Not only have the Buffalo Sabres hovered around the bottom of the National Hockey League’s standings for the second season in a row, but the injury bug has forced the team to look into the future with constant call-ups from their American Hockey League affiliate, the Rochester Americans.
The most recent skater to take the journey down Interstate-90 West from Rochester to Buffalo was Phil Varone, who gave Sabres coach Ted Nolan a reason to hold on to him for a little while.
The forward scored Buffalo’s only two goals in his second game of the season on Thursday, in Buffalo’s 5-2 loss in Carolina.
His first goal knotted the game up at one goal apiece in the first period, after a behind-the-back pass from Chris Steward found Varone’s stick, in which Varone slipped the puck in the back of the net on a sneaky deke that found Cam Ward slipping out of position, confused.
The second goal, which was scored with the Sabres already trailing 4-1, found the net when Varone tipped Tyson Strachan’s wrist shot from the point.
Is this his chance?
With the possible future being right in front of Sabres fans with Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov manning the blue line and Mikhail Grigorenko and Tim Schaller receiving extended stays in Buffalo, the question does cement itself after Varone’s two-goal night: was this just a career night or does he deserve another shot at the NHL?
Varone, a originally picked in the fifth round of the 2009 NHL Draft by the San Jose Sharks, has played in just 11 NHL games. But, he has continued to impress at the AHL level. Varone was recently named an AHL All-Star this season, as he leads the Americans with 29 points (8 goals and 21 assists) in 35 games. Although he remains in the NHL (as of Thursday), he sits at a tie for 15th place in the AHL in scoring.
Varone, at 5-foot-10, presents a small frame similar to his Sabres teammates Tyler Ennis and Brian Gionta. But like both has proved — especially Ennis this season — there can be several upsides with the smaller forwards. According to Hockey’s Future, Varone’s speed and stick skills have led scouts to believe that he can be a top-six playmaker in the NHL, similar to former Sabre Daniel Briere, but other scouts strongly disagree and believe that he is destined to stay in the AHL.
The Sabres desperately need help on offense and that has been evident all season long, as they lead the pack in the worst scoring team in the NHL. Buffalo’s minus-65 goal differential and 80 goals scored are both good for last in the league, as the closest team in differential, the Edmonton Oilers, sit at minus-49.
When it’s all said and done, his two-goal night Thursday is essentially meaningless unless he can back it up with more production (in NHL and/or AHL). With the talent that some scouts have praised Varone for, he will have to continue to produce at both the NHL and AHL levels if he wants to get another chance at a full-time gig in the NHL. He will most likely be sent back down to Rochester when players come back from injuries, but this won’t be his last shot at the league.
— Kevin Oklobzija (@kevinoDandC) January 9, 2015