Drew Stafford hung around the Sabres' dressing room longer than most on locker cleanout day. He chatted about friends, weddings, careers and the long summer ahead. It was clear he wanted to prolong the day. He knew once the talks wrapped up it would be time for a disappointing exit.
One thing Stafford delayed more than his departure was his arrival.
The Buffalo right winger entered the season figuring he'd made it in the NHL. Coming off a 31-goal season and armed with a new contract paying $4 million per year, the alternate captain was ready to help the Sabres reclaim a spot among the elite.
It didn't work out. In late January, both he and the club were languishing near the bottom in points.
"I know I took a step back this year for production at times," Stafford said. "Obviously, that went hand in hand with how the team was doing. If I was producing like I was at certain points last year, we could've won a couple more games. You win a couple more games, you're in the playoffs.
"It's one thing I'm going to try and obviously do my best this summer to focus on getting back to where I need to be."
Stafford's worst times came during the Sabres' extended drought. As Buffalo slid to a 9-19-5 record from Nov. 12 to Jan. 21, Stafford put up just four goals and 13 points. Expected to produce, the 26-year-old instead regressed to the inconsistencies that plagued his early seasons.
"When you break through you want to stay at that level," Stafford said. "It was frustrating. That's part of it. When you think, 'All right, here it is. Let's go. Let's continue to get better. Let's win some games,' kind of thing, and it wasn't there. It was tough to deal with that."
In analyzing Stafford's season, it's clear an injury hampered his production. It wasn't an ailment to him, however. The ankle sprains that sidelined Tyler Ennis for most of the first half of the season affected his linemate.
Entering the meeting with Montreal on Jan. 31, which marked Ennis' return to the lineup, Stafford had eight goals, 23 points and a minus-6 rating in 48 games. He'd averaged only 2.6 shots per game, with just 6.3 percent finding the net.
"The times this year when the production wasn't there, it's more of getting away from the way I need to play," Stafford said. "Last year I'd get the puck at certain points it would be a shot. I would know I'm shooting. When things aren't going your way, you start second-guessing. It's mentally challenging. At times I struggled with that. It's one thing that I'm going to work on to get better for next year."
Skating alongside Ennis for his final 32 games of the season, Stafford flourished. He recorded 12 goals, 23 points and a plus-11 rating. He took 3.1 shots per game and scored on 12.1 percent of them.
"A lot of it had to do with getting Tyler back," Stafford said. "We have great chemistry. I was making plays out there, shooting the puck more."
The shooting percentage shot up because Stafford, Ennis and Marcus Foligno began creating a flurry of odd-man rushes. The line was the Sabres' best once Foligno joined it March 10. The trio combined for 21 goals, 28 assists and 49 points during a scintillating 13-game run.
Stafford finished with 20 goals and 50 points in 80 games, a drop from last season's 62-game output of 31 goals and 52 points.
General Manager Darcy Regier signed Stafford to the four-year deal last offseason with the belief Stafford could carry the scoring load. The Sabres will use this offseason to think about whether the real Stafford is the one who slumped when the team needed him or the one who tormented goalies with the right people around him.
Stafford, meanwhile, will work on proving that this time he has really arrived.
"It's not over," he said. "I have this summer to get back to where I need to be. It's going to take a little while longer here because this still hasn't really sat in that we're out. It's tough, but like I said I have to deal with it."