For the past three seasons, Rochester Americans forward Phil Varone has established himself as one of the most potent offensive producers in the American Hockey League.
The 23-year-old finished as the Amerks’ top scorer two of the past three years, setting career-highs in goals and points in 2013-14 with 18 and 61, respectively. Varone also enjoyed his first call-up to the big leagues on Jan. 22, and scored his first career NHL goal with the Buffalo Sabres just four nights later.
Consider that, and then chew on the fact that Varone was almost out of professional hockey altogether.
The native of Vaughan, ON, was selected by the San Jose Sharks in the fifth round (147th overall) of the 2009 Entry Draft. The Sharks, however, elected not sign Varone to an entry-level deal which rendered him a free agent. Admittedly, a career in the NHL seemed far-fetched.
“When San Jose didn’t sign me and I didn’t really have teams knocking at the door, I would’ve had my full school paid for,” Varone said. “That was a very possible future for me, and school is big in my family. If you ask any parent whether they would take a scholarship for their kid to get their school paid for or have their hockey paid for, any parent would take the scholarship.”
Even with education in the mix, Varone received an invite to Buffalo’s training camp in 2011 and showed enough promise to earn an AHL-only deal with the Amerks. In his 2011-12 rookie campaign, Varone led Rochester in scoring with 52 points (11+41) while appearing in all 76 regular-season contests. His strong year led to a three-year, entry-level deal with the Sabres, and since then Varone has continued to be an offensive staple in Rochester. His development over his three years with the Amerks has certainly been noticed by his head coach, Chadd Cassidy.
“At times, he took this team under his wing and was a really good leader committed to the team first,” Cassidy said. “I think sometimes when you’re a younger player you get tunnel vision and it’s more about the player getting where he wants to go, and I think he made that transformation of getting the team where it needs to go so that he can get to where he wants to go.”
Now where Varone wants to go is Buffalo, and for longer than the nine games he appeared in after his January recall.
“My goal is to play in the NHL full-time, and I have to put myself in a situation where I give them no excuse but to keep me there,” Varone said. “I’m not getting any younger. It’s not like it’s my first year anymore. My goal is to come back in the best shape possible, be at the top of my game come training camp and give them no reason to send me down.”
Even with his proven success in the AHL, there is certainly no guarantee of a job with the Sabres. According to Cassidy, Varone is one of those players that is “right on the bubble”.
“He’s shown he can play at that level,” Cassidy said. “Now can you play at that level every night and help a team win hockey games? Phil has shown that he can do that at the AHL level consistently. He’s been a point producer and one of our best players the last few seasons.”
Ultimately, winning hockey games is the goal. With Buffalo looking for players to help right the ship after a season of major transition, Varone feels he can be part of the recipe for success.
“Buffalo is looking for guys that are going to be part of the solution,” Varone said. “For me personally, I’m that type of guy and I have to prove that.”
Of course, after a long season with the Amerks where he often carried a great deal of the offensive load, even Varone plans on taking a short break from hockey to mentally unwind. After reflecting on what transpired during the year, Varone can shift his focus to the upcoming season.
“Once you take the time and reflect on your year and figure out where you need to improve and what you can do better, that’s when you can start focusing on next year,” Varone said. “We have a full summer ahead, so I’m just going to live in the present right now, enjoy myself for a few weeks, take a little break and then get back to work.”
While the present and future are certainly looking up for Varone, don’t count on him forgetting about his past; a past that nearly took a turn straight out of pro hockey and back to the classroom.
“I was ready to go that route, and I’m not naïve about the fact that the cards fell into place for me. I’m happy I chose this.”