by James Murphy || NHL.com
The Buffalo Sabres came within one game of the Stanley Cup Final last season and with almost the same lineup back this season, the Sabres were one of the deepest teams in the NHL when the season got under way back in October.
That depth helped Buffalo roar to a 10-0-0 start and they have stayed a top the Eastern Conference and league standings throughout the season.
On offense, Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff has the ability to use such weapons as Chris Drury, Maxim Afinogenov and Daniel Briere, and on defense he has the likes of Dmitri Kalinin, Jaroslav Spacek and Brian Campbell.
So, for a rookie like Drew Stafford, the chance of finding a regular spot on the roster had to be slim to none. About the best he could hope for was a recall from the AHL Rochester Americans in the event of an injury.
“You knew coming into camp that the most you could do was make a good impression and hope they remember you if they needed someone later in the season,” Stafford said. “This is a very deep club, so you need to really stand out. I wasn’t drafted with a lot of hype, so I’d need to make a name for myself and just hope for the best.”
After being called up four previous times, Stafford got the call again when injuries to regulars like Drury and Afinogenov and the lingering absence of Tim Connolly threatened to scuttle the Sabres’ season.
Rochester players like Stafford and Michael Ryan were called upon for extended duty and have since been thrown into the fire as the Sabres try to maintain the top spot in the East.
While Buffalo is 5-4-2 in its last 11 games, Stafford and other young players have proven that not only are the Sabres deep at the NHL level, but that they have players in Rochester that can make an immediate impact in the midst of a stretch run.
“I think it shows the consistency throughout the organization that guys can come up and actually make an impact and play a lot,” said Stafford, who now has 14 points in 20 NHL games this season. “They play the same systems here and in Rochester and they obviously scout and bring in the same style players in order to do that.”
Stafford credits the coaching styles of Randy Cunneyworth in Rochester and Ruff in Buffalo.
“They’re both similar in that they’re tough but fair,” he said. “They will tell you if you’re doing well and let you not when you’re not. That’s all you can really ask for when you’re coming up like me. You need to have the confidence from success but learn from your mistakes.”
With eight points in 10 games following his last call-up on Feb. 16, the former North Dakota star is making a case that he belongs.
“That’s what I’m hoping for,” Stafford said. “I mean obviously the priority is game-by-game here and for the team to win, but yeah, this is the best shot I may get here for a while and you need to make the best of it.”
Stafford, who has 44 points in 33 games for Rochester and participated in the 2007 Rbk Hockey AHL All-Star Classic, credits his recent success to the fact that he has been able to jump right in and play consistently.
“I think the fact that they needed us to come right in and play normal minutes has helped a lot,” he pointed out. “We’re learning on the fly and while that may be difficult at times, you really have no choice so you just roll with it and play your best.”
This current stint has also given Stafford a chance to become part of the team and form chemistry with his teammates on and off the ice.
“It’s made such a huge difference practicing with the guys day in and day out,” Stafford said. “Being with them for this long, traveling and eating team dinners, has given me a sense of stability that helps when you step on the ice. Before, when I was up and down so much, it was tough to get in a rhythm and settle in.”
After losing in a shootout to the Penguins Tuesday night, the Sabres are 0-3-1 in their last four games, but Stafford is confident his team can regain the form that has made them one of the NHL’s best teams this season.
“I think we need to just get back to the basics and play to our strengths,” he said.
Stafford is also confident that he may be able to stick around and help Buffalo do that.
“I would love to help this group of guys finish what they started last season,” he said. “That’s why we’re all here.”
Reprinted with permission from NHL.com