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Foligno hits his stride

Marcus Foligno had to be careful. It was just minutes after the season ended with an American Hockey League playoff sweep, so there were a couple of disappointed teammates nearby. He didn't want to make it seem like he was happy.

The topic of discussion, though, was his future. There's no way to contain the giddiness when it comes to that. The Buffalo Sabres' fastest-rising prospect, if he even qualifies for that term anymore, has such a bright future that it takes over even a bummed-out dressing room.

"It's tough to say that you're excited for next season, but I'm ready to go," Foligno said last week in Rochester. "It's just tough that the playoffs went the way they did, but I see a great opportunity ahead. I'm excited for it."

He's got plenty of company. Foligno's transformation from hard-hitting project to first-line material was arguably the highlight of the season in Buffalo. He brought scoring, passing, physical play, tireless effort and a positive attitude to the Sabres, and it was all done in just a 14-game debut.

The visions of what he might be able to accomplish 82 games a year for years to come have the organization energized.

"I remember when he got drafted and came to the prospect camps, he's improved so much since then," said Tyler Ennis, Foligno's center in Buffalo. "Maybe originally we thought he was just going to be a big banger, but he worked hard on controlling the puck and making plays. He's rounded his game out so much that he's now an all-around guy.

"He can score. If it's necessary that what he needs to get going for a game is just bang and maybe fight someone, that's what he can do. It's cool that he can kind of do everything."

Foligno became an overnight sensation in Buffalo, but few success stories happen in a day. Since being drafted in the fourth round in 2009, Foligno has been determined to get better. He grew from raw long shot to world junior tournament stud. During this first pro season, the 20-year-old developed from possible contributor in Rochester to vital piece of the Sabres' second-half surge.

"It wasn't magic or anything," Rochester coach Ron Rolston said. "All of those young guys we have in the organization have great attitudes and they work extremely hard after practice and in the weight room. They have that mind-set that they want to get better every day."

Foligno has already mapped out his next area of improvement. The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder wants to increase his reaction time and his first few strides.

"As a big guy, if can you beat guys off the wall, you're going to be much more effective out there," he said. "I know I can get the puck down low and do stuff, and that's all weight training and getting stronger on the legs and stuff like that. Just the reaction time I think I've got to work on that.

"The biggest thing they said in Rochester is it's going to be development. That's what I felt I took a lot of strides in is just developing myself as the player the Sabres want me to be and the way I wanted to play, too. I know that I've got a lot to learn to play the game, but I feel that in one year I made a lot of strides. I've got to be pretty happy about that."

He can be happy about his numbers, too. Following a March 10 call up, Foligno had six goals and 13 points in 13 games. The left winger combined with linemates Ennis and Drew Stafford to record an astounding 21 goals and 49 points.

"I'm hoping he has a great summer and comes ready to go because we could have a future line there for next year," Stafford said. "His biggest asset is he does the little things. He moves the puck. He can make those little plays. Not only can he use his size and strength to win a battle on the wall, he can get the puck in his feet and kick it up to Enzo so me and him can go on a two-on-one and score.

"He's the kind of player that fit right in up here."

Foligno's roll continued after the Sabres' season ended. He tied for the Rochester lead with two goals and three points during the three-game series against the Toronto Marlies.

"This will be his last bunch of games in the American League," Toronto coach Dallas Eakins said. "That's a guy, if you're building a team for the playoffs, you want him on the ice."

In addition to the postseason success, Foligno recorded 16 goals and 39 points in 60 regular-season games with Rochester.

"He learned a lot this year with just kind of what it takes," said Paul Szczechura, Foligno's center with the Amerks. "I think he got his confidence midway through the year and realized he can be a big, dominant player in this league and in the NHL.

"He has a lot of potential. He's going to be a good NHLer, no doubt about it. I think this was just a good year to get his feet wet, kind of learn the pro game, build off watching guys up there and down here and see what it takes day in, day out. He's going to have a great career."

If Foligno can match the success of his father, Mike, it could be a fun decade in Buffalo. Mike Foligno, a member of the Sabres' Hall of Fame, captured fans' imagination with a relentless style that featured plenty of fun. The former captain leaped after goals, snarled at opponents and smiled after games.

Marcus Foligno paid tribute to his dad by jumping into the air after his first goal in Buffalo. He honors him daily by acting like a consummate pro and enjoying the game.

"As the younger kid, a lot of the family paid attention to me and was pretty excited for me," said Foligno, whose brother, Nick, is in his fifth season with the Ottawa Senators. "All in all, it's going to be a good summer with the family."

The time off will finally give Foligno a chance to reflect on his fabulous year. His drive to build on it won't allow him to rest very long. The three-game playoff appetizer in Rochester has him eager to experience more at the highest level.

"That's just a fun playoff series," Foligno said. "I know it was only three games, but it's the playoffs that you want to be in. I think it got me ready to see what it's like up top. You watch the NHL playoffs every day, all those games, and that's a goal of mine, to get there next year.

"It just builds experience and gives me confidence. Hopefully, I can take it into camp next year."

email: jvogl@buffnews.com

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Foligno's career /Top prospect is now potential first-line material

2009: Foligno, age 18, drafted by Sabres in the 4th round

Dec. 2010– Jan. 2011: Wins silver with Team Canada in World Junior Championship

May 25, 2011: Signs contract with Sabres and will start 2011-12 season with Rochester Americans

Dec. 19, 2011: Called up by Sabres

Dec. 20, 2011: Makes NHL debut against Ottawa and brother, Nick. Sabres lose 4-1.

March 10, 2012: Scores first NHL goal in 3rd period. Sabres win in shootout 4-3.

March 10- April 4, 2012: Has 6 goals and 13 points in 13 games with Sabres. Line combines for 21 goals