As the Rochester Americans embark on the second half of the 2011-12 season, each game is becoming increasingly important in their march toward qualifying for the American Hockey League playoffs. This, combined with the barrage of injuries and call-ups to the parent Buffalo Sabres over the past couple months, has made it critical for younger players to elevate their games and be successful in taking on additional responsibilities on a nightly basis.
One player who has answered the call and become a key contributor for the club is rookie forward Phil Varone. Fresh off a successful junior career in the Ontario Hockey League, the recently-turned 21-year-old has faced the customary adjustment of making the jump to the professional level.
“In Junior, if I missed a scoring chance or something of that nature, I always thought, ‘I'll get room to get another one next shift,’ but here you have to bear down when you get your chances,” said Varone. “Being aware defensively is extremely important because all guys (at this level) are good offensively, so you have to be strong on your stick and tougher to play against. All of that is wear and tear on your body so you have to take care of that as well.”
After tallying just six points (0G, 6A) over his first 23 professional games this season, all of the effort he has put forth to help work through the transformation from junior standout to pro player is beginning to produce significant results.
Over the past 13 games, Varone has recorded 14 points on five goals and nine assists, and the rookie enters play this weekend riding a seven game point streak and has moved into the top 25 in scoring among AHL rookies. With his stick heating up, the Vaughan, Ontario, native now sits second on the team in scoring with 20 points (5G, 15A) heading into the Amerks’ big weekend that will see them battle divisional foes Toronto and Hamilton.
Amerks Head Coach Ron Rolston has been pleased with the evolution of Varone’s game over the course of the season.
“His whole development process has been very good coming into the league,” Rolston said. “He was a player that we knew had a lot of hockey sense and intangibles in his game in addition to being a guy who skates very well.”
To aid in the learning curve that all first-year skaters undergo while adapting to a faster-paced game with stronger and more mature players, Rolston made one adjustment with Varone at the start of the year.
“Early on, just getting used to the league is tough so we actually played him a lot at left wing to relieve the responsibility that the center has,” Rolston explained. “In the last stretch, he has gone back to center for us and really taken control of that in terms of taking care of his own end and chipping in offensively as well.”
Varone acknowledged that he has been working hard toward becoming a more well-rounded player and put an emphasis on improving his two-way game.
“I felt that I had to realize at this level I have to pick my spots offensively and be more responsible defensively,” he said. “I have really focused on that and I am not afraid to get my nose dirty, forecheck, and hit a few guys. I think that opens up space for my game and I am just trying to put it all together.”
The determination that the youngster has shown in striving to be a player that can be used in any situation has not gone unnoticed by the coaching staff.
“He has been on the penalty kill, four-on-four, power play and he deserves it in terms of the way he has progressed and performed,” Rolston said. “I think that has helped him grow and the fact that he has competed in about 30 games is beneficial, too. He has been through the league now, so he knows what it’s like and what the travel is like.”
“I want to be a guy who coach can put on the power play, penalty kill, or in the last minute of the game to keep the puck out of the net or score a goal,” Varone said. “I appreciate the chance that the coaches have given me and I want to show that I am here to work and do whatever it takes for me to be a key part of winning games. Things are going my way right now, but it’s not about doing well for a couple weeks during the season, but keeping it going over the entire season.
“There is always room for improvement and that is where I have kept my mindset at. If it comes to me ever having a chance to play in the NHL, you want to be able to play anywhere, whether it’s left wing, right wing, or center. It has come down to not looking too far ahead and treating every day as another day to work hard and show what you can do.”