Since opening their season with a 2-1 win over the Ottawa Senators, the Buffalo Sabres have not crossed over the .500 plain in the standings. Suffocated by five sequential defeats in the aftermath, the team fell into a quicksand-like trap and whenever they are on the cusp of recovery, they sink further. Here is a club that was not beneath .500 last season from the first match to the last, capturing impudence through winning streaks, point streaks and good fortune.
Unable to collect more than two straight victories to this juncture, Tyler Ennis’s stick and overtime penalty blocked them from a possible three-game winning streak this week. Excluding Derek Roy, who underwent surgery on his left quadricep tendon and will patiently rest for the rest of the campaign, everybody has regressed in their performances. While it was painfully obvious that the Boston Bruins outworked Buffalo in their six postseason games a few months ago, the public expected a rebound of sorts. But, it’s as if those days from April left the organization scarred. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Drew Stafford, a healthy scratch in the playoff finale with Boston, has forgotten those struggles and formed an ambition from his own shortcomings. Back and forth, the 25-year-old has bounced from one end of the performance spectrum to the other, failing to secure his future in Buffalo. That was then, when many decried Stafford’s being devoid of courage and consistency as the principal reasons for his poor form. This is now, as the former first round recruit is not ducking his responsibilities or expectations like he did the previous three seasons.
Allying his size advantage with soft hands, Stafford has always flashed his potential in spurts by scoring picture-perfect goals. While his creativity on a number of goals was inspirational, it could not cover his multitude of sins. His inadequacies were mapped by disappearances over stretches of time and a feeling of angst to skate straight to the net. As a power forward, it is unacceptable to avoid the crease, where deflections, screens and battles test the durability of all involved. Questions about his demeanour were commonplace and rumours of a trade for Nathan Horton materialized, but didn’t amount to anything else.
Daniel Paille, chosen in the first round himself two years before Stafford, was cut loose by Darcy Regier two games into the 2009 calendar. For appropriate reasons, the general manager was not prepared to dispose of someone who could score through sheer power or natural skill as hastily. And as Buffalo continuously fails to put together a string of emphatic performances, it is not a matter of the team wishing for Stafford’s ascension anymore; they need it.
Stafford has 13 goals and seven helpers in 24 matches, on pace for a career-year of 55 points in only 67 contests because of early upper body issues. Of those totals, 36 of them will be goals if he can maintain his confidence and calculated through the entire schedule, he’d be hovering near 44 markers and 23 assists. None of the 13 tallies contain highlight reel material, which is tolerable because a coach is interested in quantity above quality. As for Boston, whom Stafford did not pull his weight against in the playoffs and was rewarded with a watching view from up above, he’s been intent on putting them to the sword. Seven goals, including simultaneous hat-tricks, in three chances are a testament to that motive.
By simplifying his game – holding an active stick, creating a presence around the net and reading sequences well – Stafford is blossoming into a legitimate offensive threat. He’s lost Roy, who occupied the central playmaking role and presented his linemate with a handful of his markers. Maintaining his composure, he hasn’t allowed that deprivation to impede his focus. Brenden Morrow, Brooks Laich and of course, Tomas Holmstrom, have built their reputations off the work they put forth a few feet from the goal line. The foundation of Stafford’s career will revolve around his aptitude to keep it up; not to compare himself to other crease-crashing bruisers or goal-scorers, but for his own good.
True nobility lies not in being superior to another player, but in being superior to one’s previous self.