As the NHL lockout dragged on and the first two-week chunk of the regular season schedule was called off, one of the NHL's brightest young players found himself back at the scene of the 2012 Stanley Cup Final, toiling away, turning, darting, using his backswing for slapshots instead of summer nine irons.
From a distance, this is what autumn -- hockey's version of a spring awakening -- is supposed to look like, except that Adam Henrique wasn't wearing a New Jersey Devils uniform in the Prudential Center's main arena. He was practicing in the nearby AmeriHealth Pavilion with the Albany Devils, the American Hockey League affiliate to which he and two more of New Jersey's most promising young players -- defenseman Adam Larsson and center Jacob Josefson -- were assigned until the NHL's powers that be reach a new collective bargaining agreement.
For a budding star such as Henrique, a Calder Trophy finalist who boosted the Devils with superb and clutch play during their extended playoff run, the move North to Albany, where the team's season starts Oct. 13, could feel like somewhere between limbo and purgatory. At least for public consumption, Henrique doesn't see it that way.
"Oh, not at all," he says. "I get to play. I get to work on my game. I can get a head start for when we do get back. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to helping Albany have a good season. Every team is going to have guys from the NHL working on their games, trying to earn their spots again. It's the best hockey to watch right now."
Among the other young notables with two-way contracts who've been sent to their teams' minor-league affiliates so they doesn't lose the trajectory of their recent progress: winger Chris Kreider, the Boston College standout who made his debut in last spring's playoffs with the New York Rangers -- the team Henrique's Devils beat in the Eastern Conference finals. Kreider will play for the AHL's Connecticut Whale. Top Edmonton Oiler forwards Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, and (when his shoulder fully heals) Taylor Hall, as well as prized blueline prospect Jeff Schultz, will skate for Oklahoma City. Phildelphia Flyers center Brayden Schenn (Adirondack) and Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby (Hershey) are also starting the season in the A.
When he does return to the Devils, Henrique admits that he'll miss the guidance of Zach Parise, the team's captain who served as his mentor last season before signing a 13-year, $98 million free-agent contract with Minnesota in July.
"I really learned from Zach that you have to be strong on the puck," Henrique says. "If he lost it, he'd go back and get it. He pursued every puck, never gave up on a play."
To that end, Henrique is now working on keeping the puck longer, to lean one way, angle his skates another, tuck it closer to his body so opposing players are less likely to poke check it away and more apt to draw penalties as they pursue it.
After just one full NHL campaign, Henrique has already risen well above the early forecasts when he was drafted by the Devils in the third round, 82nd overall, in 2008. He offers an early reminder of, say, Chris Drury, a very solid two-way forward who developed a knack for netting huge goals in timely situations. Henrique's postseason tallies last spring were validations of his play in his pre-NHL days when he lifted the Memorial Cup with the OHL's Windsor Spitfires in 2009 (he was the tournament's co-leader in scoring, with 17 points in 20 games) and in 2010 when he won the Wayne Gretzky Award as playoff MVP (20 goals in 19 games).
Henrique, 22, earned his graduation to the NHL after spending 2010-11 with Albany, finishing as the team's second-leading scorer. He had a solid debut season for the Devils -- 51 points and plus-8 in 74 games -- and shot to stardom in the opening-round of the playoffs against Florida by scoring the series-winning goal in double overtime of Game 7. He later put in the eastern finals clincher against the rival Rangers in OT of the decisive sixth game.
"You always want to score those big goals," he says. "I always want to be out there for a big moment. I've been lucky to be out there for a few."
When you listen to him talk about his clutch performances, Henique makes them sound more like happenstance than design. His hometown thinks otherwise. When he went home to Burford, Ontario, during the summer, the signs, roughly two miles apart at the town's entrance and exits declared it the home of Adam Henrique.
"That's a huge honor and I was pretty shocked to see it," he says. "It's funny to think of being that guy."
Given the career momentum he generated last season, it's funny to see Adam Henrique in the AHL again, but such are the circumstances beyond his control.