ROCHESTER – Sabres prospect Sean Malone quickly learned last season that he had to transform his style. In pro hockey, the skills that helped him morph from an unheralded sixth-round pick into an NHL prospect would only take him so far.
So Malone, a high-scoring center at Harvard, adapted as an AHL rookie in 2017-18, embracing his new role as the Amerks’ third-line center.
“Pro hockey will do that to you,” Malone said of changing his style. “The reason you get here is you’re a guy who’s relied upon to score goals. There’s a lot of skilled players in this league. I have to focus on things that are going to make me stand out and carve out a role at the next level instead of beating myself up over offense.”
The West Seneca native said he wants to be “a responsible two-way forward.”
“Often I think defense first when I really want to start thinking offense a little more,” Malone said.
Malone, 23, performed so well last season that he quietly developed into one of the organization’s top forward prospects. If he hadn’t suffered a knee injury in the Sabres’ exhibition opener Sept. 17, he might’ve competed for an NHL roster spot this season.
After missing seven weeks and the Amerks’ first 12 games, Malone returned Nov. 7, registering two assists in a 5-2 win against the Cleveland Monsters at KeyBank Center.
Sitting out so long, of course, was difficult. The Amerks have roared out of the gate, starting 10-3-1. They’ve won three of the last four contests entering Friday’s road game against the Springfield Falcons.
“I was really chomping at the bit,” Malone said following his season debut. “It’s tough watching your team from the stands ... Finally, I’m able to play and get the monkey off the back and have some fun out there. So it was really exciting for me, I put a lot of work in to get out there.”
Injuries have dogged Malone over the years. An undisclosed problem cost him all of training camp as a rookie. He also underwent surgery on both hips during college.
“Mentally, obviously it’s hard, but I’ve been through it before, and injuries happen,” said Malone, who played one game for the Sabres late in 2016-17. “Guys get injured all the time. It’s just how you respond, we preach it all the time in here.”
Malone responded last season by compiling 12 goals and 23 points in 73 contests and earning Amerks coach Chris Taylor’s trust.
At Malone is at his best, Taylor said he wins faceoffs, showcases grittiness and kills penalties. Offense, however, is still part of his repertoire.
“He adds a great spark to our team and he can create a lot of offense, which is the way he plays,” Taylor said. “We want him to create as much offense as he can, but we also want him to be that type of player that we can rely on in those last three minutes of a game, last two minutes, last 30 seconds for a faceoff or to be the low guy in our zone to help defend it.”
Taylor said Malone reminds him of Paul Gaustad, one of his former Amerks teammates. Gaustad progressed from a seventh-round pick into a versatile forward who spent seven years with the Sabres.
“I’d love to see if he could do that and play that role and be that player,” Taylor said. “Paul did a great job, he got power-play time in front of the net, he won some big faceoffs, he used to shut down other teams’ top lines.”
Asplund making progress
At first glance, the first six weeks of center Rasmus Asplund’s rookie season look underwhelming. Through 14 games, the Swede has recorded just one assist for one of the AHL’s highest-scoring teams.
Still, Asplund, 20, has impressed Taylor, who said the former second-round pick’s “hockey sense is off the charts.”
“Good hockey people know … the way he’s playing,” Taylor said. “He’s playing great hockey and he’s penalty killing, too, doing the little things that no one notices.”
Taylor wants Asplund to shoot more. So far, he has only managed 19 shots on goal.
“He loves to pass the puck, but he’s got a great shot himself,” Taylor said. “His point production on the score sheet doesn’t match the way he’s really playing, and we know that.”
The Amerks also play road games Saturday against the Providence Bruins and Sunday afternoon versus the Hartford Wolf Pack. It’s the first of five sets of three games in three days on the Amerks’ schedule.