It had reached the point where Drew Stafford wanted to be put out of his hockey misery. His scoring touch, alternate captaincy, confidence and role on the Sabres were all gone. He was in a deep hole at the darkest time for Buffalo’s hockey team.
Once Ted Nolan arrived in mid-November, Stafford’s outlook began to brighten. The right winger listened to his coach, wife and friends, and things began to change. Slowly, pucks began to fill the net, young teammates started following him and the “A” was back on his sweater.
Stafford’s ability to turn his career around is why the Buffalo chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association has selected the 28-year-old as this year’s nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy.
“The trying times you go through, all the adversity, it reveals the true character of some guys,” Stafford said Tuesday before picking up two assists and a shootout goal in a 3-2 win over New Jersey. “I definitely was able to stick with it and pretty much drag my career out of the abyss. That being said, I feel like I have a lot more to go, and the glass is definitely half full.”
It took six weeks for everything to start clicking, but Stafford was the Sabres’ top performer by mid-January. He has 11 goals and 20 points in his last 26 games.
The Masterton is awarded annually to the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. Writers in each city nominate one player, and a winner is chosen from the 30 candidates via a PHWA vote.
Stafford got his name on the list by becoming a leader on a young team that desperately needs some. It wasn’t an easy climb for the former 30-goal scorer or the fans.
The right winger’s rapid fall began during the lockout-shortened season of 2012-13, when he totaled just six goals and 18 points in 46 games. Stafford started this season back on the top line, but again he couldn’t produce. He had just two goals and six points in the opening 20 games under coach Ron Rolston.
The lack of results led to a warranted drop down the lineup. But even when the right winger had a good game, he’d still find himself benched. It weighed heavily.
“It’s extremely hard to be productive on any level in any form with a clouded head,” Stafford said in First Niagara Center. “Most of the time when you try to fight through it and force things, it just gets worse and worse and worse.”
Nolan replaced Rolston on Nov. 13, and he told Stafford to relax and play hockey while returning him to the top line. John Opfer of Proformance Sports Training helped the winger step up physically, while Garret Kramer, who deals in sports psychology, helped Stafford refocus mentally.
“The combination of getting an opportunity with Ted coming in as well as just getting a little clarity, it works wonders,” Stafford said.
“I really like Drew,” Nolan said. “He’s had a rough start, but he loves this city and he loves to compete. When they sign a contract to play professional hockey, they’re not signing it to be in the playoffs. They’re not signing it to score 50 goals. They’re not signing it to be a champion. They’re signing it to be the best player that they can possibly be, and Drew Stafford is one of those players.”
Stafford has played the best hockey of his career despite losing his closest friends in the dressing room to trades. His wife, Hali, helped him say his goodbyes but stay focused.
“I’m really lucky to be surrounded by a lot of good people in trying times when you need a little pick me up,” Stafford said.
The winger has one season left on his four-year, $16 million deal. He’s been the subject of trade rumors the past two years and could be again this summer, but he’ll finish this season as an indispensable member of the organization, one worthy of a Masterton nomination.
“With everything that’s gone on,” Stafford said, “I’ve just been trying to be part of the solution as much as possible and do my best each and every day, on and off the ice.”