Throughout the summer when people asked me about Stafford and his chance of being traded or playing for Buffalo this season I would say the same thing: “Drew Stafford is a smart guy. He knows he sucked this year. He knows that the Sabres were not happy with him.”
He’s smart enough to know he has to make up for the bad year with an incredible one in a contract season this year. He’s also smart enough to watch the tape and listen to the coaches to know what he needs to fix. If he truly has the drive to be an NHL player he will be much improved next season.”
I may just be a genius but through three preseason games Stafford is making me look really good. The areas of his game that were abysmal last season were his physical play, mental commitment and defensive play. All of those have made huge leaps this off-season.
With notorious softies Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville throwing their weight around this preseason, it appears as there has been a paradigm shift in the physical play of the organization. Stafford seems to be on board in spades.
Watching him skate through his checks on the forecheck, even after the puck is gone is refreshing. After 3 years of watching him immediately turn and loaf up the ice it’s pretty close to therapeutic. You could tell at the end of last season that Stafford was trying to change his game a little bit and become a more physical presence.
He went after RJ Umberger and mashed his face up, he also started half-heartedly running people into walls. In his defense: it is very difficult to completely change your game in mid-season. Especially to shift your whole mental approach to a game you’ve been playing for decades.
Here is a quick look at the fight with Umberger towards the end of last season:
In a recent interview he told the Buffalo News: “I haven’t thought about last year since maybe a few weeks after it ended, you’ve got to reflect, then you’ve got to move on and work on getting better. That’s what I did. I’m not thinking about anything from last year. I’ve got a brand new year here and a brand new opportunity. I put in a great summer to be prepared for it because that’s the most important thing is being prepared mentally and physically.”
It appears he has done just that. In three games he has added a physical edge to his game, but better still he looks fast, strong and skilled. At the breakout age of 25 (he’s the youngest member of the Sabres’ Core from several years ago) he’s set to produce big time if his effort can continue.
Consistency has always been a question mark for the Milwaukee native. You’ll notice that I waited for the end of the 3rd preseason game to write this article. I thought it after the 1st, I believed it after the second, but Stafford’s nature was to play two games and then disappear. A mental consistency is huge for this kid’s career.
In the 3rd preseason he did more than prove to me that he’s changed slightly. He showed that he can be a dominant force. Stafford made this game his. He played fast, leading rushes and forcing the puck to the middle coming off the edge.
He played strong as we’ve already mentioned. He played smart especially defensively, in the 2nd and 3rd period he came up with strong defensive plays, and his positioning is much improved. He played skilled, ducking in and out of defenders to take shots and drive the net.
He has also displayed a new desire to shoot the puck, which is great for a line with Roy and Vanek if that’s where he ends up. He played on a line with Nathan Gerbe and Rob Niedermayer tonight and I was excited every time they were on the ice. Gerbe and Stafford have shown me enough in the preseason. They should be on the opening night roster.
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So is this a new Drew Stafford, as the title implies, or will he revert as soon as he has a spot? Who knows? What I do know is that he has worked his tail off this past off-season to better himself as a player and that that’s all any organization can ask of a player.
If he gets complacent during the season then by all means, ship him out. If not, I think Sabre’s fans will like the new Drew. Heck, I thought he even looked bigger tonight, it might have just been the small rink, but it might just be a testament to how far “Staff” has come.