by AJ Atchue || for NHL.com
Only five weeks into his pro hockey career, Portland Pirates rookie center and top Buffalo Sabres prospect Luke Adam could hardly be blamed if he needed a few moments to catch his breath.
He has shot out of the starting blocks as one of the American Hockey League’s top offensive threats, let alone one of its top rookies; he’s already earned two separate recalls to the Sabres; and he’s probably accrued enough air miles in the process to qualify for frequent flier status.
But for someone who seemingly holds a future one-way ticket to the National Hockey League in his back pocket, Adam certainly won’t begrudge the process involved in getting there.
“It’s been a pretty big whirlwind for sure, but you don’t complain about that stuff,” he said. “To even get the opportunity to suit up in a couple (NHL) games so far this season, it’s been great.”
To say the least, the 20-year-old Adam earned that chance and has been building towards it for as long as he can remember.
A native of St. John’s, N.L., Adam grew up in a pure hockey environment. His father, Russ Adam, appeared in eight NHL games with Toronto and won a Calder Cup with the New Brunswick Hawks in 1982. He later served as an assistant coach with the AHL’s St. John’s Maple Leafs from 2001-05.
“He was always there for help and support,” Luke said. “Any kid who plays hockey dreams of playing in the NHL. I don’t know if there was a set time where I said ‘this is what I want to do,’ but there’s certainly a point there where I knew I wanted to start following that dream.”
Adam endured an up-and-down junior hockey career in which he went from producing 15 points in primarily a third- and fourth-line role as a 16-year-old to racking up 49 goals and 90 points for Cape Breton (QMJHL) last season, far and away the top offensive numbers on the club.
The 2009-10 campaign also saw Adam earn a spot with Canada’s squad at the World Junior Championships, which served as a confidence-builder personally and ended with a silver medal for the team.
A second-round draft pick (44th overall) by Buffalo in 2008, Adam came to the AHL late last season and contributed two assists in three playoff games for the Pirates.
“That really gave me a good taste of what the professional life was like, a sense of what I had to look forward to in the season to come,” he said.
Fresh off an offseason of preparation, Adam burst onto the AHL scene full-time this year with a two-goal, two-assist effort in Portland’s season opener vs. Manchester on Oct. 9. He registered another four-point effort just three games later, and hasn’t looked back since.
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound forward is currently leading the entire AHL with 11 goals, and he’s setting the pace among rookies in goals, points (19) and plus/minus (plus-11) through 14 contests for the Pirates, who sit atop the AHL’s Atlantic Division at 11-3-1-0 for the season.
“Obviously you’ve been able to see a level of talent that Luke has with his God-given assets, which are his size and strength,” said sixth-year Portland head coach Kevin Dineen. “He’s a hard-working kid that continues to work at his stickhandling, his shooting, and the rest of his skill set. It makes it easy when success follows.”
Though he is admittedly loath to use such comparisons, Dineen sees some of Marian Hossa in Adam’s game when it comes to his skating ability.
“They both get out of the gate in a very similar style, whether the puck’s on their stick or whether they’re on the backcheck,” he said. “Sometimes guys get a good jump when the puck’s on their stick, but when they’re going back, I think it’s important to see (speed) there as well.”
Adam parlayed the lightning-fast start into his first call-up to the Sabres on Oct. 26 for a game in Philadelphia. That was just the beginning of his travel odyssey.
After being returned to Portland the next day, he and the team flew to Norfolk, Va., for games on Oct. 29 and 30. Adam recorded a goal and two assists in the first of those contests and was promptly summoned back to the Sabres for an Oct. 30 game in Dallas.
He returned from Dallas to Buffalo, caught a flight to rejoin his Pirates teammates in Charlotte, tallied three more goals in two games there against Carolina’s AHL affiliate on Nov. 2 and 3, then flew back to Portland and scored yet another goal in a Nov. 5 home game.
“It all happened pretty quickly, actually,” Adam said. “I can’t say enough about (my first NHL game), it was just a pretty big thrill to step on the ice for an NHL game for the first time, something you always dream about.”
That hectic pace is unlikely to continue all season, and Adam will have the chance to fine-tune elements of his defensive game which will be critical to his long-term NHL success.
“Offensively, I like to be counted on to score goals and create chances. But last year and especially this year, I’ve been focusing on rounding out my game defensively, becoming more of a complete two-way guy,” Adam said. “I’ve been given such a great opportunity here in Portland. Coach Dineen and (assistant coach Eric Weinrich) have both been helping me since day one, even since the end of last year. I’m just trying to take advantage of the opportunity.”
Dineen has had Adam centering a line with two-time AHL All-Star Mark Mancari each game thus far, with either 188-game NHL veteran Matt Ellis or former Calder Cup champion Colin Stuart on the other wing.
The constant among that trio? Experience.
“I think Luke as well as I would give credit to all three,” Dineen said. “It’s given him a good opportunity for feedback within the line and the ability to continue his maturity as a pro.”
If recent history is any barometer, it should be of little surprise that a Pirates rookie is tearing up the AHL this year. After all, the league’s last two rookies of the year have both been Portland forwards on their way to an NHL job in Buffalo – Tyler Ennis last season and Nathan Gerbe in 2008-09.
And Dineen, who was coach in Portland for three seasons while the club was affiliated with the Anaheim Ducks, also watched the likes of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Dustin Penner and Bobby Ryan develop with the Pirates during that time.
The 2010-11 campaign isn’t even a quarter old, but Adam is already making his case to follow in their footsteps.
“Obviously as a rookie, it’s been brought up quite a bit how Nathan and Tyler had nice seasons here, and they’re out in Buffalo now,” Adam said. “I’d love to keep that going. As any rookie in any league, I think your goal is to be rookie of the year, but we’re only about 15 games into the season right now. I just hope I can keep working hard and going the way I’m going, and we’ll see.”