Drew Stafford admitted he was a naive rookie when the Buffalo Sabres lost to the Ottawa Senators in the 2006-07 Eastern Conference Finals.
Stafford, then a 21-year-old winger, had two goals among four points in the playoffs and thought the Sabres would reach the conference final every year.
"It just doesn't work out that way and before you know it, the years go by and you're still kind of chasing after it," Stafford, now 33, said in his New Jersey Devils practice jersey Tuesday before he faced the Sabres in KeyBank Center.
Stafford, a first-round draft pick of the Sabres in 2004, could not help but look back on those early years over the past week. Stafford played in his 800th career NHL game Friday in Arizona and scored the shootout winner for New Jersey.
Though he entered his matchup with the Sabres averaging a career-low ice time of 10:23 per game, Stafford, like some of his former teammates in Buffalo, has been able to adapt.
"It flies by, really," Stafford, who played parts of nine seasons with Sabres, said of his milestone. "It’s one of those things where you kind of take a step back and I guess reflect on a few things. It’s one of those things it reminds you how much of a privilege it is to play in the league and every day it’s an honor to be here. Try not to take it for granted because it goes by fast."
Stafford has appeared in only 18 games this season because of injury and healthy scratches. Entering Tuesday, he had scored one goal – not including the shootout winner – with two assists and a plus-3 rating in his previous four games.
His reliable play on the fourth line helped the Devils enter Tuesday with four wins in their previous six games.
When Stafford joined the Sabres from Rochester in October 2006, he was a young player thrust into a dressing room dotted with proven veterans. Now, he and two teammates on that 2006-07 Sabres team are passionate leaders on their respective teams.
Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek, who now plays for Detroit, were 24 and 23 years old, respectively, when the Sabres reached the conference final in Stafford's rookie season. Pominville and Vanek surpassed 1,000 NHL games this season and, like Stafford, are being asked to fill different roles.
Stafford has spent much of this season on the fourth line and is learning how to make an impact despite spending long stretches of the game on the bench.
"Anything you have to do to stay relevant and you have to adapt as the career goes on if you want to stay in the league, and stay with this group, because we have such a good group in here," Stafford said.
Stafford had eight goals among 15 points in 59 games to help the Devils reach the playoffs last season. His average ice time of 13:52 was his lowest since 2007-08 with the Sabres.
Stafford made three playoff appearances with the Sabres – he averaged 20:01 in seven games in 2010-11 – but has not reached the conference finals since his first season.
He was expected to skate on the fourth line with Brian Boyle and Brett Seney against the Sabres on Tuesday night. Stafford, who was traded to Winnipeg in February 2015 after three 20-goal seasons with Buffalo, is an unrestricted free agent at season's end.
Stafford does not plan to stop chasing the Cup.
"Play as long as you can – until they tell you not to play anymore," Stafford said. "That’s pretty much it. I’m grateful for the opportunity to come back here."
Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman reported Tuesday the Sabres placed center Scott Wilson on waivers. Wilson, 26, has yet to play this season after breaking his ankle during a practice in late September.
Wilson is unlikely to be claimed by another team since he has not played a regular-season game since April and had only 14 points with a minus-20 rating in 69 games last season.
The Sabres want Wilson to play more than a few conditioning assignment games with Rochester, and he can join the Amerks if he goes unclaimed.
Cincinnati Cyclones coach Matt Thomas will serve as the Western Conference's coach for the ECHL All-Star Game on Monday, Jan. 21, in Toledo. He was selected because the Cyclones have the conference's highest winning percentage at .735 with a 23-7-4 record.
Thomas was hired in August to replace former coach Matt Macdonald, who left to become an assistant coach with the Grand Rapids Griffins of the AHL.
The Buffalo Sabres Foundation will host its second mega raffle Sunday, Feb. 17, in the Lexus Club at KeyBank Center, featuring prizes that include autographed items, team experiences and tickets.
Doors open at 1 p.m. with the first raffle spin at 2 p.m. Sabres alumni will be on hand for the event, which will include 15 raffle rounds with three to four spins per round and a grand finale.
Raffle tickets will range from $2-5 and the $25 admission cost covers lunch. Tables of 10 can be reserved with all proceeds benefiting the Buffalo Sabres Foundation. Fans can purchase tickets or reserve tables online at Sabres.com/megaraffle.