Perhaps no Sabre made a greater leap during the 2010-11 campaign than forward Drew Stafford
. Aside from shattering his previous career-high in goals, the 25-year-old evolved as an all-around player while proving to be a bit of a hat trick specialist.
After improving his offensive numbers in each of his first three NHL seasons, Stafford saw a sharp decline in production during the 2009-10 season. Late in the year, he suffered a concussion and missed the first two games of Buffalo’s opening round playoff series against Boston, was held pointless while playing in Games 3, 4 and 5, and then was a healthy scratch in the sixth and deciding game of the series.
Following the early exit from the postseason and disappointed at not playing in the final game, Stafford set out to make himself a better all-around hockey player by improving his off-season training regimen. The result was a career-year for the fifth year forward.
“I felt as though I had it in me, I had the potential. It was just a matter of tweaking a few things in my preparation and my training,” Stafford said in the days following the 2010-11 campaign. “Coming in, making sure I was just as prepared as I can be, mentally and physically. That’s not going to change… I still feel I can get better and I’m going to focus on that this summer.”
Stafford’s breakout season took a while to really get going. Head Coach Lindy Ruff mentioned several times early in the season that Stafford may have been the team’s best player during training camp, and even though he got off to the quickest start of his career by recording eight points (4 goals, 4 assists) through the first 14 games during Buffalo’s rocky start as a team, Stafford had trouble staying in the lineup due to injuries.
A shoulder ailment sidelined him for 11 games in November. When he returned, he notched a goal and an assist in a 5-0 win over Columbus, but absorbed a hit late in the game that re-injured the shoulder and sidelined him for four more games. Once again, however, he immediately made his presence felt when he returned to the lineup.
With the Sabres coming off a 5-2 loss to Pittsburgh in their previous game, Stafford returned for a home date against the Bruins on Dec. 15 and supplied all of the offense for Buffalo in a 3-2 win for his first hat trick of the season. He scored a power play goal in the first period, then, with the Sabres trailing 2-1 in the third period, scored twice to complete his third career three-goal game.
Just over two weeks later, Stafford was at it again, hanging another hat trick on the Bruins in a New Year’s Day classic. In the midst of the 2011 IIHF World Junior Championship, which was held at HSBC Arena, Buffalo and Boston battled in a back-and-forth game that resulted in a thrilling 7-6 shootout win for the Sabres. Stafford scored a goal in each period, capping the hat trick with the game-tying goal at 19:32 of the third period to force overtime.
I felt as though I had it in me, I had the potential. It was just a matter of tweaking a few things in my preparation and my training. Coming in, making sure I was just as prepared as I can be, mentally and physically. That’s not going to change… I still feel I can get better and I’m going to focus on that this summer.” - Drew Stafford on his 2010-11 season
The hat tricks continued for Stafford in February as he notched two of them in a three-game span – the first against Tampa Bay on Feb. 8, and the second versus the Islanders on Feb. 13. In that three-game span, Stafford scored six goals on six shots.
“I’m just trying to stay consistent,” Stafford said back in February after notching his fourth three-goal game of the season. “It’s one of those things where you’ve got to keep moving on. You can’t keep thinking about the last game or games, good or bad. You have to keep staying focused and try to stay consistent.”
With four hat tricks on the season, Stafford became just the sixth different Sabre to accomplish the feat, joining Rick Martin, Gilbert Perreault, Pat LaFontaine, Alexander Mogilny and Thomas Vanek
. Stafford is also one of just five NHL players to record four hat tricks in one season since 2005-06.
Stafford went on to finish the season with a career-high 31 goals and 52 points while appearing in just 62 games due to an assortment of injuries.
“Individually, I definitely made some steps in the right direction as far as the type of player that I can be. I don’t plan on stopping. I still feel I can get better, and that’s the plan over the summer. It was unfortunate I had the shoulder problem at the beginning of the season,” said Stafford, who added that he plans to work on getting stronger over the off-season to help prevent injuries.
In addition to emerging as a 30-goal scorer, Stafford also expanded his game by joining the penalty kill unit late in the regular season and playoffs. Although he was held to a goal and two assists in the Sabres’ seven-game loss to the Philadelphia Flyers during the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals in April, Stafford did play a critical – though somewhat unfamiliar – role for the Sabres as he led all Sabres forwards in total ice time during the series.
“My role as a penalty killer came up and I enjoy it, I like it. It brings a new aspect to my overall game and I was really focused on trying to play solid defensively in that role, considering I was almost every time one of the first guys going out there… I take a lot of pride in making sure that I was playing well defensively and solid,” he said when asked to evaluate his own personal performance in the postseason. “On the negative side of it, I was getting a lot of shots, I was getting chances, just the puck wasn’t going in like it was before, so that’s one thing I definitely look back on and wish I could have provided more on the goal-scoring front. Otherwise, I guess the biggest thing is last year I was a healthy scratch (in Game 6 versus Boston), wasn’t playing in the most important game of the year. This year, I made some big improvements. ”
Stafford’s hard work during the summer of 2010 translated into the best season of his professional career, and he plans to continue on the same path over the coming months to make himself an even better player.
“I think I had a great off-season last year as far as training, as far as making the right steps that needed to be made as far as improving my overall game, so I’ll just stick with that same plan and just try to improve in every aspect,” he said.