Many members of the Buffalo Sabres responded positively both on and off the ice after Ted Nolan was brought in to coach the team 20 games into the 2013-14 season.
The coaching change perhaps had the biggest impact on right wing Drew Stafford.
The eight-year veteran’s offense had been lagging at the start of the season. Through those first 20 games, Stafford had only two goals and three assists. Nolan came in and immediately looked upon Stafford as a leader of the team and it resulted in Nolan putting Stafford back into a role in which he could succeed.
After toiling for a few weeks on the third and fourth lines, Stafford was put on the top line during Nolan’s first practice with the team.
“Everyone in this room is in the NHL for a reason,” Stafford said. “They were given a chance and most of the time, when you get clouded in your head and you’re thinking about things, you’ve got a lot of stuff going on, it’s hard to produce. It’s hard to be yourself.”
Stafford, 28, averaged over 20 minutes of ice time and posted 21 points (12+9) in 29 games after the season’s halfway mark. In the 41 games prior to the midway point, Stafford had 13 points (4+9) in and averaged 17:36 per game.
In 70 games played, Stafford finished the season with 16 goals and 34 points. He had 21 points (12+9) in 31 games (.680 points per game) during the 2014 calendar year alone.
His second-half push helped his case for being named the Sabres’ candidate for the Bill Masterson Memorial Trophy – awarded annually to the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey – by the Buffalo chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association.
Jaromir Jagr, Manny Malhotra and Dominic Moore were named the League-wide finalists.
Stafford said that both Nolan and former president of hockey operations Pat LaFontaine provided him with a fresh start and enabled his resurgence when they were hired by the organization in mid-November.
“A lot of that has to do with playing with clarity and living with clarity. [Nolan] gives you an opportunity to succeed with your skill set and gives you a chance. It’s up to you to take advantage of it. It’s pretty much as simple as that,” he said.
“…Ted definitely gave me an opportunity – and Pat as well when Pat came in – gave me an opportunity to pretty much be myself. I’ve taken that, grabbed that by the horns and haven’t really let go. I’m not planning on stopping.”
I’ve taken that opportunity, grabbed that by the horns and haven’t really let go. I’m not planning on stopping. - Drew Stafford
With many of the sudden changes to the roster over the course of the last two months of the season, Stafford took on a bigger leadership role and served as an alternate captain again after the NHL Trade Deadline. As one of the most experienced players on the team, he’s looking to continue to take on an expanded leadership role.
He’ll also draw upon what he learned as a younger player to help show the rest of the team the way.
“I’ve gotten to the point now in my career, I remember seeing some guys that were my age [now] and I was seeing what they were doing on and off the ice, just little things,” he said. “It might be the smallest thing but it’s something that sticks with you for a long time.
“So I have that responsibility and I’m going to cherish that whatever happens, regardless if you’re wearing a letter or not. That is your responsibility – to be your best and that’s something I’m going to continue to do this summer and get ready to go.”
Stafford, like many players in the Sabres locker room, will look to put this past season behind him and focus on improving for next season. It starts with how each player approaches the offseason.
“It’s pretty much turn the page and that’s all you can really say,” he said. “Because you can talk about how embarrassing, how frustrating and disappointing this season was, but bottom line is we’ve got a good opportunity to have a healthy and productive summer and get back to work.”
While Stafford admitted the next few months can be nerve-wracking for a player considering how many changes can be made to a team during both the NHL Draft and free agency, he believes that it’s a fun time to be following the team.
The first round of the 2014 NHL Draft will be held on June 27 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. Rounds 2-7 will be held on June 28.
“If I’m a Buffalo Sabres fan, I’m excited about some of the changes that could be coming this summer as far as the draft coming up,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of good picks coming up and we’ll see what happens. But for how bad this year was and how disappointing it is, the future’s definitely bright here in Buffalo.”