Chris Stewart doesn't care about the prophecies that the Buffalo Sabres will be vying for gifted prospects Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel at the top of the 2015 NHL Draft. Defiant enough to proclaim the Stanley Cup Playoffs a "realistic goal" for the NHL's worst team in 2013-14, he's moved past what was a disappointing season for both the franchise and the 26-year-old forward.
After scoring 15 goals and 26 points in 58 games, the lowest totals since his rookie year in 2008-09, Stewart is entering this season brimming with confidence. The sweeping changes made in Buffalo have Stewart, acquired in the trade that sent goalie Ryan Miller to the St. Louis Blues in February, primed for a bounceback season.
"I definitely have a chip on my shoulder," said Stewart, who last season sustained a right ankle injury that limited him to five games in a Sabres sweater. "I wasn't happy with my year last year, either. I feel like I have a lot to prove and it's just going out and doing it. I'm going to come in and I'm going to be consistent. I think that's been a knock on me. I've been able to put together good stretches and then go cold, but I think we have a coach like Ted Nolan who believes in you. I think it's going to be hard not to have the best season of my career so far.
"I've never ended the season on an injury before, so it's been a long offseason for me. I'm definitely ready to play some hockey."
Set to be an unrestricted free agent after this season, Stewart is a two-time 28-goal scorer and Nolan is counting on him to find his touch. The Sabres coach believes reaching or even exceeding 30 goals for an offensively-starved team isn't out of the question.
"I think he's going to make a huge difference," Nolan said. "I'm a Chris Stewart-type of hockey coach that likes that type of player. He's big, he's aggressive, he plays with some spirit, he's got great hockey sense, got good size and he's tough. And he's going into his contract year. I'm quite sure he'll get back that form. If he's better, we're all better."
Things can only get better in Buffalo after a season in which they posted a League-worst 21 wins and 52 points as well as a franchise-low 157 goals. For that to happen, a healthy Stewart will need to be a major component on a team that added forward Brian Gionta and defensemen Josh Gorges, Andrej Meszaros and Andre Benoit and brought back forwards Matt Moulson, Cody McCormick, Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis.
During his brief time with the Sabres, Stewart forged chemistry on a line with Foligno and Cody Hodgson. A productive Stewart could help his linemates raise their level of play, thus lengthening the lineup.
"I think with me and [Foligno] on the wings there, we're up-and-down guys who are bringing the physicality every night," Stewart said. "And Hodgson, when he gets that puck he's pretty gifted. His hockey sense is definitely up there with a few of the better players in the game. If that's the line where we end up playing together, I'm very excited to play with those guys."