Lindy Ruff is notorious for juggling his lines. Yesterday morning, he thought it would be a good idea to put Rob Niedermayer with Thomas Vanek and Derek Roy. Surprising to no one, the line didn’t last 10 minutes after the puck dropped.
So Ruff went with the tried, tested and nearly exhausted combination of Vanek, Roy and Drew Stafford. For a years now, the Sabres have been trying to force Stafford on the top line but he mostly proved to be a streaky winger with a decent scoring touch, unusual religious beliefs, some musical skills and a pretty funny Twitter account.
Here in the Roost, we’ve been skeptical and critical of Stafford’s play. He quickly got lumped into the logjam with Clarke MacArthur and Dan Paille — players with whom fans’ patience was wearing thin — and rightfully so. There’s no question he’s extremely talented, so what Stafford really needed to do heading into this year was change the perception around him to justify the big contract he wants to sign in July.
Here were my thoughts on Stafford heading into the regular season:
There’s another important player who’s in a contract year but doesn’t have the right to walk at the end of the season. He’s a player who could have very easily been in the “19. 9. 29.” discussion, and in all honesty, he probably should have been. But this is really a make-or-break year for Drew Stafford.
Supposedly, Stafford had a really good offseason and put in a lot of work to basically get his head right. He looked good in the preseason. He looked like a player that was drafted in the first round who can make a difference.
If that carries into the regular season, then look out, but since he’s come into the league, one of the only things he’s really been consistent at is being inconsistent. I don’t want to say this is Stafford’s last real shot at establishing himself as a top-line winger, but if he doesn’t get in gear quickly, there’s potential for quite a few players to leapfrog him on the depth chart.
He started off strong. Six points in seven games and he did actually play like a former first round pick. Then he got hurt, missed 11 games and had to work his way back into the lineup. In his first game back against Columbus he scored three points and somehow ended up being the first star.
(Aside: I know it’s tradition and it’s cool for the players to take a curtain call after a game, but the three star system is completely bogus and unnecessary).
Then he got hurt and, after missing four games, scored a hat trick last night against Boston.
At this point, because he’s missed so many games, you could almost call Stafford a pleasant surprise. If you don’t expect him in the lineup and then he nets three goals, it feels like a bonus. During his postgame scrum (no, not the near-brawl that broke out at the end of the game), Stafford joked that maybe he’ll take another two weeks off between games. At least I think he was joking.
But Stafford should be a player who consistently makes a difference for this team. We’ve waited a long time for Stafford to make “The Leap” and maybe he’s finally on his way to being a top player on this team. He looked comfortable with Vanek and Roy (as he should have — he’s played with them a ton over the past two years) and last night was one of the first times it looked like he actually “belonged” there.
He’s making great strides in that direction but there are still a lot of questions about what we’re seeing from Stafford that will be answered in time.
It’s still to be seen whether a full game will come around for him or if he’ll only be a guy who’s really good at putting the puck in the net and not much else (which I think we could learn to live with). Or if he can even be that.
He’s on a line now with two guys who are playing perhaps the best hockey of their careers. If what Vanek and Roy are doing on a nightly basis doesn’t motivate you to play better, then, well, you’re probably Nathan Gerbe.
And what about that scuffle as the final horn sounded? It was very reminiscent of Game Five of the playoffs against the Bruins last year. More importantly, the Sabres have displayed some swagger and anger in their last few home games. And it’s about time.
Whether it’s Cody McCormick dropping the gloves and winning, Steve Montador dropping the gloves and losing, Pat Kaleta taking a run at guys or even Jordan Leopold (perhaps this season’s unsung hero so far) being the third-man in, there’s a confidence developing that’s typically shown by good teams that are playing well.
Aside from a few expected lapses here and there, we’ve been watching a good team for the last two months and you can probably trace it back to that shootout win in Toronto. Since then, the Sabres have collected collected 22 of 34 points. They’re currently six points out of a playoff spot with 51 games left. No better time to start turning it around than now.