Shortly after being named the Sabres’ Rookie of the Year, Buffalo forward Marcus Foligno summed up the honor.
“I won it by default,” he said.
Foligno was smiling but only half-joking. Despite the Sabres’ youth, there were only a couple of legitimate candidates. He was the lone rookie to spend the whole season in Buffalo, so Foligno’s teammates voted for him.
“I’m happy the guys chose me,” he said, “and I was able to have an OK year.”
No one, however, expected just “OK.” The 21-year-old was counted on to be a top-line player. He ended the previous season with a flourish alongside center Tyler Ennis and right wing Drew Stafford, but the trio fizzled from the outset this season.
Foligno and Stafford spent most of the second half on the Sabres’ bottom lines.
“I had an expectation for myself to carry over from the previous two years and continue to have production goal-scoring-wise,” Stafford said. “It just wasn’t there this year.”
The duo’s stats dropped significantly as the Sabres remained out of the postseason. They were point-per-game wingers during their 13-game run in 2011-12, with Foligno recording six goals and 13 points while Stafford put up seven and 17.
This season, Foligno had five goals and 18 points in 47 games, while Stafford recorded six and 18 in 46 games.
“It was tough,” Foligno said. “That’s the way it goes sometimes. You’re not always happy. It’s not like the effort was not there. It’s just some things aren’t working.
“I thought I had some good games, and just consistency is an area I’ve got to work on.”
Foligno took a significant step back under coach Ron Rolston, who helped turn Foligno into a top prospect in the first place.
Foligno recorded 16 goals and 39 points in 60 games with Rolston in Rochester in 2011-12. During the lockout, the forward added another 10 goals and 27 points in 33 games for the Amerks.
With Lindy Ruff on the Sabres’ bench for the first 17 games, Foligno had one goal and eight points in 16:52 of ice time per game. Foligno averaged 11:47 under Rolston, and the forward had four goals and 10 points in 30 games. He also was scratched once.
Rolston moved Foligno from left wing to center during the final weeks. Foligno won 60 percent of his faceoffs but took just two shots in the last eight games. He still led the team in Corsi rating, which compares the number of shots attempted at the opposing goaltender versus the shots taken at the player’s own netminder.
“The playing time went down at the end of the year,” Foligno said. “For myself, it’s just to really go home and become a better player and work hard this offseason, make sure I’m going back into next season positive with lots of confidence and ready to play.
“I want to be in key situations. It’s there for the taking.”
Stafford also said he’ll work hard, but he enters this offseason with uncertainty alongside his poor stats. He has two seasons left on a four-year, $16 million deal and may not fit into the rebuilding plans of the Sabres.
“As players, all that we can focus on and worry about is what we’re doing to prepare to change within ourselves to be better,” he said. “Whatever management ends up doing, we have to respect that.
“I signed a contract here, and I want to be here. I made that commitment, and that’s something I do want to fulfill. I want to be successful here. I want to help this team be successful.”
He missed his chance this season with scoring droughts of 14, 10 and seven games.
“Going into summer again, we have that bitter taste in our mouths,” Stafford said. “It’s just not a good feeling not playing in the playoffs.”