First-round draft picks are in a conundrum the second they step foot onto the podium to don their new jersey and pose for the cameras. It's all or nothing for someone who is suggested to be a building block and a future star for an organization. Fail, and they're considered a major flop. Succeed, and they'll be drowning in praise. Talk about trying to bench press the weight of the world.
Drew Stafford, Buffalo's 13th overall pick in the 2004 Entry Draft, was chosen for his package of size and talent. Taken 12 spots after Alexander Ovechkin and 11 after Evgeni Malkin, his work with the North Dakota Fighting Sioux (in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association) stood out on Darcy Regier's radar. Stafford hoarded 24 goals in the final year of his WCHA shifts, and wasn't a slouch with the AHL's Rochester Americans, reaching 44 points in 34 games.
All of that directs us to 2007, otherwise known as Stafford's first sniff of NHL oxygen. Merely filling in for an ailing Maxim Afinogenov, he didn't look out of place on a roster featuring Daniel Briere, Chris Drury, Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Derek Roy, Jochen Hecht and Brian Campbell. With half a season's worth of action, Stafford tossed in 27 points and had he played the full campaign, would have become Buffalo's seventh 20-goal scorer. Victimizing Olaf Kolzig and the Washington Capitals defense was his most sparkling moment, accompanied by his four points in the postseason.
Briere and Drury were erased from Buffalo's line-up in the summer and Stafford welcomed a permanent position, extra ice time and responsibility; or so we thought. A sophomore slump suffocated him to 38 points and five came in a 10-1 rout against the Atlanta Thrashers. Last year, he came through with 20 goals and 25 assists, hinting that he might be ready share the offensive container more and more. He was hardly dependable, as he had eight points in the first two months and six in the final two months. Most of his damage came in between when he scored 31 points in 40 games, including a sublime execution versus the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Things looked promising, but it went downhill from there because Stafford buried just 14 goals and 34 points this year, not once scoring in back-to-back nights. His convincing display came at home with the Pittsburgh Penguins holding a 3-0 lead, and he racked up two goals and an assist to bring Buffalo back from the dead on the way to a win. When Stafford flicks the 'on' switch, he can be an intimidating task for defensemen, but he's been accused - rightfully so - of picking and choosing the instances to turn it on.
Signed to a two-year, $3.8 million dollar deal prior to training camp, the 24-year-old was aided and abetted by premier forwards Roy and Vanek, but did little to repay them. For every goal Stafford got, his salary averaged each out to over $100,000 in payment - not a bad deal. He went on a 15 and 16-game dry spell, while scoring once in 25 contests during the second drought. On Dec.27, Andrej Sekera played as a winger for the first time in his career, replacing Stafford in St. Louis. Being brushed to the side for a fellow right wing player is one thing, but being held back for a defenseman who didn't ever experiment as a forward is a disgrace of it's own kind. And he had a terrific view of Buffalo's last postseason match from the press box, being a healthy scratch again; an appropriate end to his year.
He had the support from management, the privilege of elite line-mates and came off a career-year in 2009. How did it all go so awfully? As it turns out, Stafford is not prepared to suffer the bumps and bruises that come in a power forward's existence. Like a vampire avoiding sunlight, he didn't go to the net and threw away chances for a shot as if they were pennies. If Stafford needs to learn a few important pieces of advice, it's that less is more and stick to the basics of the game. A pep talk from Brooks Laich, who doesn't need directions to the crease, would work.
"If you want money, go to the bank. If you want bread, go to the bakery. If you want goals, go to the net."
The resiliency of Tyler Ennis, Tim Kennedy and Nathan Gerbe, who are well below the six-feet mark in height, isn't helping Stafford's cause. They don't mind withstanding their share of abuse and with comparisons like that, you can see why Lindy Ruff believed he was better off taking youth ahead of an experienced player who has failed to live up to expectations.
Drew Stafford's best consistency came in his rookie year, when he played each game with the mindset that his window was being shut, because it was a try-out. With his future in doubt and one year remaining on his contract, it's befitting that he'll be in the same position at the start of his fifth season; a power forward who'll have to power his way into the organization's good graces.