It’s going to be hard to say if any team in the NHL can carry any positive momentum they may have gleaned from the end of last season into this lockout-shortened version, since the 2011-12 regular season ended more than nine months ago.
It will be more on individuals, rather than teams, to keep the good feelings going since some of them kept their careers going on a relatively normal schedule overseas or in the American Hockey League.
The Buffalo Sabres certainly hope that’s the case with burly winger Marcus Foligno. He burst on the scene here last March, getting named NHL Rookie of the Month after compiling six goals, five assists and a plus-10 rating. He’s clearly established as a top-six forward at the start of his full pro season as the left winger with Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford. That’s no small task under a veteran head coach like Lindy Ruff.
Foligno said this week he was disappointed the lockout wiped out his first training camp as a likely regular in the NHL but he worked hard to maintain his focus with the Amerks.
“You can’t get frustrated. The lockout could get to you, knowing you had a good end to last year and had a good chance to start with Buffalo,” Foligno said. “I had a lot of support from the coaching staff down there and the coaches from the Sabres always being down there watching. You always felt you were being scouted so it helped you to keep working hard and not be complacent.”
Plenty of publications and websites expect big things from the 6-foot-3, 226-pound Foligno. TSN, the Canadian sports television giant, has Foligno on a list of 20 Calder Trophy candidates that also includes Sabres center Mikhail Grigorenko and Tampa Bay winger Cory Conacher, the former Canisius College star.
Foligno had six goals and seven assists last year in 14 games. He had a scoreless outing in his NHL debut on Dec. 20, 2011 at Ottawa and then exploded on the scene when he returned for the final 13 games. He scored his first NHL goal in game two, also at Ottawa on March 12, and had points in nine of his last 13 games.
In Rochester this year, he had 10 goals, 17 assists and a plus-7 rating in 33 games.
“He’s a great hockey player and everybody knows he’s such a beast with the puck,” said Sabres center Cody Hodgson, who centered Foligno this season for much of their stint with the Amerks. “He takes the puck so hard to the net, creates offense, has a great shot. It was a fun time to play with him.”
Foligno had five goals and eight points in his first five games in Rochester this year but struggled when Hodgson went down with a hand injury and didn’t score for 10 games. Ruff liked how Foligno pushed through that tough time to keep contributing.
“If you’re not putting the puck in the net, you have to help someone else put it in,” Foligno said. “I was still chipping in with the offense, helping out. There were a few empty nets here or there, chances I didn’t capitalize on. But there was no shortage of getting to the net so I was happy with that. I was getting through the grind well.”
As key NHL players relegated to the AHL during the lockout, Foligno and Hodgson were the keys to every opposing scouting report on the Amerks. Hodgson, who had five goals and 19 points in 19 games in Rochester, will open the season here at center between Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville.
“I’d rather have that target on my back,” Foligno said. “It means people look at you, think you can do well down there and measure up to you.”
Foligno, the son of former Sabres captain Mike Foligno, said he will be keeping his Buffalo uniform number of 82 this season. He wore 71 in Rochester, the reversal of his father’s No. 17, but said he’s going to allow older brother Nick Foligno of Columbus to be the family’s only 71 in the NHL.
“It was a real advantage I had being able to go to Rochester,” he said. “That time helped me work on becoming a more complete pro player. I have to look at it that I’m kind of lucky the lockout happened when I was still on an entry-level deal and I was able to keep playing.”
The Sabres will continue training camp today from 10:30 a.m-12:30 p.m. in First Niagara Center. Admission and parking are free. The team sold 5,000 tickets Tuesday on the first day of public sales and have 13,000 tickets left for the season. Sunday’s opener against Philadelphia is one of four games already sold out.