Drew Stafford still doesn't have a new contract, but the Buffalo Sabres right winger was on the ice for testing Saturday morning when the veterans reported to HSBC Arena. A good-faith sign from both parties that a deal is close?
"We made some progress [Friday]," Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier said. "I think both sides worked very hard at trying to get a deal done. Unfortunately, we still don't have a deal. But we'll continue working. And in light of that, Drew wanted to be here, and we thought it was best that he is here for the start."
Added Stafford: "That was my plan -- to show up and be here and be with my teammates and prepare myself to play hockey. That's all I was thinking about, all that was on my mind."
Stafford is a restricted free agent who is likely seeking a good-sized bump from his $984,200 salary after posting career highs with 20 goals and 25 assists. The 23-year-old said he's trying to improve his consistency so he can be pinpointed as a top-six forward in the Buffalo lineup and not land in coach Lindy Ruff's doghouse as much as he has the last two years.
"[Top-six status] is what I expect out of myself," Stafford said. "More important, my mind-set is to work on my consistency. I know when I struggled last year, that was the main reason for my struggles.
"I had to execute consistently, handle the workload and make sure I'm bringing it all the time.
"I just want to win. I want to be part of the solution, and I want to contribute. I want to be around the guys and make the playoffs."
Neither Regier nor Stafford would say if Stafford would take part in today's first scrimmage. A serious injury in camp, of course, could derail Stafford's big payday. He said agent Neil Sheehy is looking into insurance.
"It's business. You just have to be professional about it," Stafford said. "It's part of playing. There is the business side of it, and you have to learn how to deal with it. All I was focusing on over the summer was making sure I was getting better, making gains."
The Sabres have not always allowed unsigned players on the ice. Regier made an exception because of the progress between the sides.
"Probably the most important thing is you really want to keep pressure on the process," Regier said. "There's a lot of pain if you don't have the player, and there's a lot of pain if the player isn't here. I think that's a way of putting pressure on the process and getting deals done."
There were no surprises as the Sabres' coaching staff tested the team's veterans. Almost to a man, they skated through drills as if it were midseason.
"It'd be disappointing if I had to stand here and say those results weren't very good. I'm impressed right now," coach Lindy Ruff said. "When I started playing, there were still players who came into camp to get into shape. Now playing hockey is a 12-months-a-year job."
Restricted free agent Mark Mancari, who requested a trade during the summer after spending the past four seasons with the Sabres' minor league affiliate, did not attend the opening of camp. General Manager Darcy Regier said the Sabres have attempted to deal the 24-year-old to no avail.
"He's been a valuable member of the organization," Regier said. "He's contributed in different areas. We like his progress. In as much as he'd like to be in another organization, it certainly isn't going to be our policy to just allow players to walk out. I think once you open that door, in fairness, it's tough to close it."
Mancari tied for the Portland Pirates' scoring lead with 69 points last season. Were he to accept his qualifying offer, report to camp and fail to make the Sabres, another NHL team would have the ability to claim him on waivers as he descended to Portland.
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