by A.J. Atchue || for NHL.com
It’s a good thing Albany Devils forward Adam Henrique loves playing hockey, because that’s pretty much all he’s been doing for the past two and a half years.
The rookie prospect of the New Jersey Devils is coming off back-to-back Memorial Cup runs with the Ontario Hockey League’s Windsor Spitfires, and while many of his peers were enjoying time off around Christmas in 2009, Henrique was busy helping Team Canada to a silver medal at the World Junior Championships.
Now, 68 games into his first pro season in the AHL and with the finish line in sight, some time to rest and recover is finally on Henrique’s horizon.
Though disappointed that his Albany squad will miss the Calder Cup Playoffs when the regular season ends on Apr. 10, head coach Rick Kowalsky views it as a blessing in disguise for someone with as many miles on his skates as Henrique has.
“I had been a little worried about him running out of gas here because if you look at his last three years, there haven’t been many breaks,” Kowalsky said. “In a strange way, once this season’s over it might be good for him to just take some time off and rest up because he’s played toward June and played through Christmas with the World Juniors. It’s been non-stop hockey for him for a couple years now.”
Non-stop hockey has largely translated into non-stop success of late for the 21-year-old Henrique, a native of Burford, Ont., who grew up as a Detroit Red Wings fan despite his relative proximity to Toronto and the fact that his entire family rooted for the Maple Leafs.
“It worked out well for me,” Henrique noted. “They didn’t like it when (the Red Wings) were winning the Cup all the time.”
Henrique played youth hockey in nearby Brantford right up until his OHL draft year, at which point the prospect of making a career out of the sport really began to take shape.
Following a pair of 44-point junior seasons for Windsor in 2006-07 and 2007-08, Henrique was chosen by New Jersey in the third round (No. 82) of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.
“It was an unbelievable feeling. Just being able to be drafted by an NHL team is something you grow up dreaming about,” he said. “(And) to go to a team like New Jersey, who’s been an unbelievable organization for so many years, was also a bonus.”
Coincidence or not, Henrique managed to take his play to another level after becoming property of the Devils.
Often playing alongside future first-overall draft pick Taylor Hall, he racked up 30 goals and 63 points with the Spitfires in 2008-09 and topped that by producing a 38-goal, 77-point total last season, but he wasn’t done.
Henrique went on to lead Windsor with a remarkable 20 goals in 19 postseason contests en route to a second consecutive Memorial Cup crown, which included a rally from a 3-0 series deficit to oust Kitchener in the OHL semifinals.
“Things were just going right for me. I couldn’t tell you how I got 20 in the playoffs,” Henrique said. “We were playing great, it’s something I’ll never forget, and I’m sure that’s what all the guys would say that, too. Over the four years, I could feel myself getting better and better, and we had a great coaching staff there.”
The 6-foot, 205-pound Henrique couldn’t have been brimming with much more confidence as he readied to begin his pro career.
“This year I didn’t have my best NHL camp, but I still felt confident coming down here to Albany, and I just tried to work hard every day, come to the rink every day and have fun. You can’t be too stressed or too tight going to the rink, and I think that was big too.”
Whatever approach Henrique has taken is paying big dividends, as he enters the final two weekends of the regular season ranked second on Albany with 46 points, including a team-high 24 goals. His five game-winning goals are tops on the Devils, as are his eight power-play goals and 20 points with the man advantage.
“His biggest strength is his hockey sense. He sees both sides of the game, offensively and defensively, and he’s a smart hockey player,” Kowalsky said. “I think the other side of it is for a young kid making the jump to the American League, he’s strong on the puck, real strong stick, and one of his biggest assets is a real good shot. He knows where to put it, he gets it off quick, and it’s hard.”
It’s mentioned so often with first-year pros that it almost becomes cliché, but Henrique experienced a feeling-out process early in the season before he became comfortable in his own skin at the pro level.
“It was gradual,” Henrique said of the adjustment. “Confidence was just growing every game, and I felt better on the ice every game. And after every practice, just getting used to your teammates and opponents, and obviously the level of play is a step up from last year. I think over the first month there, I started to feel better and better and eventually just fit right in.”
Once the comfort level was established, Henrique began to take on a greater role in the Devils’ offense and produced more as a result.
After finishing with 16 points (8-8-16) in 27 games through the month of December, Henrique has totaled 16 goals and 30 points in 41 contests since the calendar turned to 2011. One area in which Henrique and Kowalsky both agreed the rookie had taken great strides was getting to open space and releasing his shot quicker.
“You don’t get too many chances every game playing at the pro level, so once you do get that chance, you have to bear down,” he said. “I think being a playmaker and a goal-scorer has really developed over the past few years and really come a long way for me.”
As Henrique continued to demonstrate his offensive abilities and maturity, Kowalsky leaned on him more and more throughout the season, to the point where the rookie became one of Albany’s leaders in ice time during the second half.
“He’s played in every single situation possible,” Kowalsky said. “As a coach, I’m confident in his ability, and it didn’t take long for me to gain that confidence in him. Coming right out of camp I could see that he’s really smart, knew the game, and he’s a reliable guy on both sides of the puck.”
In an organization which has seen more than a dozen players suit up for both Albany and New Jersey this season, Henrique has been a constant for the AHL Devils and quickly developed chemistry with another regular in linemate and Devils leading scorer Matt Anderson.
Anderson won a Calder Cup with Chicago in 2008 and is in his third full AHL season, experience which has proved invaluable to the young Henrique.
“I know where he’s going to be on the ice, and he knows where I’m going to be, and we can trust each other out there,” Henrique said. “We just feed off each other pretty well, and I’ve been able to ask him about pretty much anything.”
Now at the season’s final lap, Henrique has logged more than 200 regular-season and playoff games over two levels of hockey since the fall of 2008, plus another six tilts in international play and the seemingly endless travel.
He certainly wouldn’t admit to wearing down, but granted that the grind of a long professional schedule is one important item to check off the adjustment list.
“Over the course of the year, it gets mentally tough,” Henrique said. “You just have to focus more and more every day and be able to work hard. I want to finish out the year strong and go into the summer with the mindset of making the New Jersey Devils next year.
“This year has helped me out tremendously, just learning so much,” he continued. “Learning how to take care of yourself, living on your own, the schedule, playing more games, it’s a higher level, and I think going into next year it’s helped my confidence tremendously.”
You can count Kowalsky among those who mark Adam Henrique’s rookie pro season as a job well done.
“As far as a first year goes, I think this has been a real good year for him,” the coach said. “All the pieces are in place, and it’s just a matter of time and being in the right situation before he gets a chance to play in the NHL. Without question, I don’t think he could have done a whole lot more than he did this year.”