ROCHESTER – It took much longer than Americans center Sean Malone anticipated to reach this stage in his development.
Last year, fresh off a strong rookie season, injuries nearly derailed the West Seneca native’s career. The physical toll and accompanying mental anguish sapped his confidence and left him searching for answers.
After appearing in only 38 games as a second-year pro, the Buffalo Sabres did not offer Malone a contract. Instead, the Amerks signed him to an American Hockey League deal.
But Malone, 24, has enjoyed a comeback campaign, morphing into one of coach Chris Taylor’s most trusted forwards.
“I love the game again,” Malone said.
While Malone said he never lost his love for hockey, missing so much action last season and rarely feeling like himself when he managed to play wore heavily on him.
“I know I had another gear, and I just wasn’t able to turn it on,” said Malone, who has stayed healthy all season. “I think stepping away and working on the issues I had this summer and coming back stronger is really paying off.”
Malone has 11 goals, a career-high 28 points and a plus-14 rating in 54 games.
“Maybe I’m developing a little later than I would’ve imagined,” said Malone, who has the highest rating among Amerks forwards.
While Malone is in his mid-20s and doesn’t have an NHL contract, he could be earning back his prospect status.
“He’s really coming back to what we thought he was going to be as a player,” Taylor said. “He’s opening up not just his coaches’ eyes, but his peers’ eyes. Everybody that’s around him understands (not only) how good of a player he is, but how much he’s grown and how (dedicated he) has been this year. He’s getting rewarded for it.”
Taylor has rewarded Malone with an expanded role. In last Wednesday's 3-2 shootout loss to Utica, Taylor utilized him on the power play, to take a critical faceoff in the waning seconds of overtime and in the shootout.
“It’s nice being relied on in important situations,” Malone said. “Even today out there I went on the three-on-three to take an important faceoff with 15 seconds left. It’s things like that, I think, that separate me from some guys. I want to keep doing that.”
Taylor said Malone’s confidence handling the puck has been his biggest area of growth.
“He’s just not just throwing pucks in to get it in deep,” he said. “He’s making plays, he’s making really good plays, sound plays. He’s reliable on the defensive side of the puck, too. He’s always underneath it supporting.
“He’s one of those guys I can trust putting out in all different situations.”
Malone, a sixth-round pick by the Sabres in 2013, 159th overall, seemed to develop quickly earlier in his career.
He earned a spot on the U.S. National Development Team as a teenager, played four years at Harvard and jumped directly to the NHL just days after his college career ended.
But other than one game he played with the Sabres just hours after signing his entry-level contract in 2017, he has stayed in Rochester.
Following a strong rookie campaign with the Amerks in 2017-18, Malone injured a knee in the Sabres’ preseason opener last season before battling upper- and lower-body injuries.
“A couple of the injuries I had really set me back,” said Malone, who said he underwent a “procedure” during the offseason. “I didn’t feel like myself. To get those (injuries) out of the way, it feels good, it feels back to how I felt in college and before that.”
A year ago at this time, Malone had just returned from a five-week absence and hadn’t scored a goal in more than two months.
“He had a lot of injuries and he just couldn’t find that groove,” Taylor said. “And every time he kind of got back for two or three games he got injured again. I think just staying healthy this year gave him that consistency that he needed. But he worked hard all summer for it.”
Malone said this season compared to last one is “like night and day.”
“I went through a little mental battle, got in contact with the right people and sorted it out,” said Malone, who wouldn’t reveal with whom he spoke. “I’m just feeling good this year and grateful to have another opportunity with Rochester.”
He added: “It was really tough for me mentally, and to able to get past that, I think that makes me a better person. I just feel like my character’s a little bit better.”