Finally, in the last home game of the regular season, the old Drew Stafford showed up.
It was "shirt off our back" night in HSBC Arena, with a season-ticket holder winning the jersey of a Buffalo player. During game breaks, taped footage of a stone-faced Sabre would appear on the scoreboard. He'd monotonously announce a seat number and invite the winner to meet him on the ice after the game.
Stafford's big-screen appearance was far from mundane. He popped up with a fake Fu Manchu mustache taped to his upper lip, the huge hairball earning laughs from the sellout crowd.
Acts like that were commonplace during Stafford's first four seasons. He enjoyed witty skits and treated interviews as a chance to chide folks rather than answer questions.
The right winger decided this season would be different. He focused on hockey instead of hijinks. Although there were fewer laughs, folks in Sabreland almost certainly prefer the new Drew Stafford.
His maturation on and off the ice resulted in a career year. Stafford set personal bests with 31 goals and 52 points, becoming the type of player Buffalo envisioned when it drafted him 13th overall in 2004.
"I definitely made some steps in the right direction as far as the type of player that I can be," Stafford said. "I don't plan on stopping. I can still get better. That's the plan over the summer."
The improved numbers and attitude were telling signs of Stafford's growth. For the 25-year-old, the most obvious sign came during Buffalo's final playoff game. He played in it.
The Sabres made Stafford a healthy scratch in the deciding game of the 2010 postseason. This spring against Philadelphia, he was one of their key players. He topped all forwards by averaging 20:01 of ice time during the series, including 21:12 in the Game Seven defeat.
"The biggest thing was last year I was a healthy scratch, wasn't playing in the most important game of the year," Stafford said. "This year, obviously, I made some big improvements."
They've come at an ideal time. Stafford's contract is set to expire, making the restricted free agent one of the more attractive players in a weak market.
Stafford plans to maintain focus
Buffalo News | May 4