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Stafford Must Earn His Spot
September 22, 2010 - Matt Spielman
It’s time for Drew Stafford to prove his worth to the Buffalo Sabres.
The 13th pick of the 2004 NHL entry draft has taken his fair share of criticism over the past few years due to his sometimes lackadaisical play and long stretches of not scoring, but many people fail to realize that Stafford is just 24 years old and could still have 10-plus years of NHL stardom in him.
Thrust into the lineup during the 2006-07 season at the age of 21, Stafford shined down the stretch, playing on an afterthought line behind the likes of Daniel Briere, Chris Drury and a blossoming Thomas Vanek. When Briere and Drury left, Sabres fans expected Stafford to be the second coming of Danny Gare, but the 6-foot 1-inch power forward was still finding his way in the “new NHL” and was now expected to perform on the top line against opposing teams’ top defenders.
The Sabres rewarded the North Dakota Fighting Sioux alumnus with a two-year $3.8 million contract before last season after his three-year entry-level contract expired and once Buffalo fans see a player begin making several million dollars, they start being very critical of that player.
The thing Sabres fans may not realize is this: compared to the rest of the 2004 draft class, Stafford stacks up very well. Other than possible future Hall of Famers Alexander Ovechkin and the obvious second choice Evgeni Malkin, not many other players from the class have blossomed at this point in their NHL careers. Washington defenseman Mike Green was drafted near the end of the first round and he was quite the find for the Capitals, but other players in that draft include Cam Barker, Andrew Ladd, Blake Wheeler and Wojtek Wolski, just to name a few. Ask around the league and most general managers or head coaches would take Stafford over pretty much the entire class of ’04.
Don’t get me wrong, just because I would take Stafford over a lot of guys around the league, doesn’t mean I don’t think he must start performing at an elite level. The reason fans get so frustrated over Stafford is because they have seen him perform at a very high level, but only for short periods of time. Any everyday Sabres follower will bring up the winger’s amazing stickhandling rush against the Toronto Maple Leafs in February 2009 as evidence that he is worthy of close to $2 million per season -- if he can do that consistently.
Heading into training camp, Stafford will again be given every shot to succeed from coach Lindy Ruff. Stafford opened on the wing with Thomas Vanek and Derek Roy after Buffalo’s weekend scrimmages ended early this week. That line will be recognized as the Sabres’ top line and will attract the most attention from opposing coaches, but Stafford has to overcome that.
Playing for a contract following this season won’t hurt, but Buffalo management cannot be lured into the same trap if fell into with Tim Connolly. When their inconsistent center was playing for a contract two seasons ago, he went on a 15- or 20-game tear just before the trade deadline which seemingly convinced the front office to re-sign him to a big-money two-year deal and Connolly has disappeared for stretches since then. Stafford could do the same thing this winter and spring, but management must demand maximum effort as well as production day in and day out before rewarding Stafford the long-term, big-money contract he surely will command.
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Thomas Vanek and Drew Stafford AP photo