Drew Stafford wasn’t interested in a blow-by-blow rehashing of the darkest moments in his career because, really, what would that solve? The torturous lectures and sit-down meetings with previous management and coaches are behind him, along with sleepless nights and persistent self-loathing.
Stafford looked like a different man Tuesday than he did three weeks ago, before Pat LaFontaine and Ted Nolan arrived to rescue a troubled franchise. He was smiling and laughing again in the Sabres’ dressing room. His eyes were bright as he talked about second chances and a promising future.
It was as if Stafford had shackles removed and tasted freedom after a life sentence in solitary confinement. He was proud of himself for surviving the experience without becoming institutionalized. And he sounded like a man who was committed to treasuring his career no matter where it would lead him.
“It started with a clean slate,” Stafford said. “It was pretty much a reset button. I felt mentally and physically it was a complete breath of fresh air for pretty much everyone in the organization but also for me personally. I’ve tried to run with that feeling and make sure I’m not taking one second for granted.”
Stafford was convicted in the Court of Public Opinion on several counts that included laziness and indifference, both sports felonies. Sure, it looked that way when his feet stopped moving and the goals stopped coming. There were times in which it appeared that he didn’t care if the Sabres won or lost, so long as they signed the paychecks.
Looks can be deceiving, however, especially when people can’t see what’s happening behind the scenes. The whole story may never be told, but Stafford was among several players, including Derek Roy and Thomas Vanek, who felt as if they had been beaten over the head with criticism if not beaten into submission.
This is not intended, in any way, to portray Stafford and the others as poor, innocent victims of the previous regime. I’m sure much of the criticism was warranted. Some would argue it was good coaching. But there’s also no denying that endless needling gets old and tiresome and, after a while, can be suffocating.
Stafford, by his own admission, became a basket case. His father, Gordon, is known for building a powerhouse girls’ program at Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Faribault, Minn., but he also earned a Ph.D. in sports psychology. Drew Stafford earned his doctorate through first-hand experience. He also refused to surrender.
“There was a lot of toxicity that crept in over time,” Stafford said. “That toxic environment can eat away at you. You can’t let external factors eat at you, but after a while, when it’s nonstop, and it’s over and over, it just sucks the life out of you.
“It’s part of the job to deal with the external stuff whether it’s the media or the pressure. You have to face the music sometimes. I’ve been doing this long enough to be proud of myself for sticking with it and seeing it through.”
Now, with two goals and seven points in 28 games, he needs to resuscitate his career. He deserves the benefit of the doubt while the Court of Public Opinion considers his appeal. Players who lack confidence often have slow feet, which make them look lazy. Is that what happened with him? It’s time to find out.
Stafford’s problems have never been from the neck down. He’s a good, powerful skater with good size and good hands. He has the ability to become a consistent 25-goal, 50-point scorer in the NHL. He had 31 goals and 52 points in 62 games in 2010-11. He followed that with 20 goals and a career-high 30 assists the following season.
Overall, he has underachieved.
But it’s in there – somewhere.
Stafford has become a reclamation project, Exhibit A for Nolan and LaFontaine as they continue sifting through the ruins. LaFontaine is evaluating every player on the roster while searching for a general manager. He’s not in a hurry to find a GM and could be several weeks away, perhaps longer, from hiring one.
In the meantime, he has placed his fragile team into the sturdy hands of Nolan. The idea is to get players to improve and provide immediate help. But there’s an added long-term benefit. The better they play, the stronger their stock on the trade market. Stafford will eventually determine whether he’s a keeper.
“I’m not going to show Drew too much more,” Nolan said. “He’s been around for a while. He knows the game. I’m not going to teach him too much more on his skill-set, which he already has. The one thing hopefully I can help is his mental mind-set, make him feel better about himself. In return, he’ll be a better contributor.”
Here’s the deal: LaFontaine and Nolan have removed the shackles, but they also have removed excuses. Stafford will either play well here or play for another team. He’s on the first line with Cody Hodgson and newcomer Matt Moulson. He’s also quarterbacking the power play from the point, where he has more time and space.
Stafford still hasn’t scored since Nolan stepped behind the bench, but his skating has returned. He’s been more active, more engaged. He has shown flashes of greatness. He made a terrific play against Montreal last week when he checked P.K. Subban off the puck and sent a perfect backhand pass to Moulson for a goal.
Stafford is clearing his head and gaining confidence. He needs to extract more from his ability and turn it into production. It’s a matter of bridging the divide between mind and body and becoming a complete player. He’s getting the fresh start he needed under Nolan. And he’s leaving the past where it belongs, behind him.
Finally, out of darkness comes light.
It’s time he lights the lamp.
“I haven’t felt this good in a long, long time,” Stafford said. “The difference with Teddy is that he gave me some respect. He believes in me. When you’re not used to that communication, you don’t want to let a guy like that down. I want to get the job done. I want to put the puck in the net. And I want to win.”