WINNIPEG -- The Winnipeg Jets took the first step toward reinforcing their lineup by signing forward Drew Stafford on Tuesday.
Stafford, 29, avoided free agency and signed a two-year contract with an average annual salary of $4.35 million.
After the Jets acquired Stafford in a multiplayer trade with the Buffalo Sabres on Feb. 11, he had nine goals and 10 assists in 26 games. Stafford, who led Winnipeg with a nine-game point streak this season, played left wing and right wing, strengthened the second line and helped the Jets qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2007 with a franchise-record 99 points.
"It was an extremely easy choice," Stafford said Tuesday. "It was the offer I wanted. I'm extremely happy to be coming back. The bottom line is I'm coming back to an organization where I'm extremely comfortable. I love the city. The fans were unbelievable to me."
Stafford had 18 goals in 76 games with Winnipeg and Buffalo this season. He was the 13th pick in the 2004 NHL Draft by the Sabres and had 154 goals and 341 points in 589 NHL games. He scored an NHL career-high 31 goals with Buffalo in 2010-11.
Stafford stressed his desire to remain with the Jets after being swept by the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference First Round. Stafford arrived in Winnipeg with defenseman Tyler Myers; each player quickly adjusted to the Winnipeg dressing room and provided a veteran presence to a young team in the final two months of the regular season.
The contract term is shorter than what might have been expected for a 29-year-old who had found a fit with a team, but Stafford said he was comfortable with it. The contract could allow him to test free agency in 2017 when he will be 31 years old.
"I think the term works well for both sides," Stafford said. "I'm all for the challenge of raising my game. I feel like I've got a lot left to prove. I still feel like I've got a lot left to show. The term and the money made sense for both sides.
"If it's still a good fit [in two years] we can maybe talk then about where we're at."
Stafford is the first major name crossed off general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff’s summer to-do list. Forwards Michael Frolik, Lee Stempniak, Jiri Tlusty and Jim Slater each can become an unrestricted free agent Wednesday. Cheveldayoff did not speak to the media Tuesday.
Captain Andrew Ladd and defenseman Dustin Byfuglien could become unrestricted free agents after next season.
Cheveldayoff being able to maintain and improve the Jets’ depth will be critical this summer in the highly competitive Central Division. The Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild are among the teams in the division that have been able to retain key players or make improvements with a trade.
But Stafford said he believes the Jets can duplicate their success.
"We have the type of team where I feel like we can do some damage," Stafford said.