Blake Wheeler and Drew Stafford (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)
The former Buffalo right winger found his game disconnected after the 2013-14 campaign, so he sought out famed skills coach Darryl Belfry's advice. The result has been a reawakening of a big man with great hands.
Stanley Cup playoff hockey has returned to Winnipeg and if the Jets are going to upset the potent Anaheim Ducks, they'll do it with depth, not through one line or one superstar. One of Winnipeg's most dangerous players since the trade deadline is right winger Drew Stafford, who came over from Buffalo in the Evander Kane deal. Stafford, a 30-goal scorer with the Sabres in 2010-11, had fallen on hard times offensively in more recent days. But thanks to a couple of high-profile friends, he has rediscovered his game.
Darryl Belfry is a famed skills coach who has worked with some of the most elite names in the hockey world. John Tavares and Patrick Kane are two acolytes, as are Zach Parise and Kyle Okposo – both of whom are friends with Stafford and part of the Shattuck-St. Mary's mob in the NHL. At the end of last season, Stafford contacted Belfry on the advice of Parise and Okposo. He wanted to get his game back on track and the adjustments he tried to make on his own hadn't made things better.
"He knew," Belfry said. "He could feel it. Drew's always been a streaky scorer, but then the (bad) streaks started getting longer. His skills had become disconnected."
So Belfry and his team put together a plan for the powerful winger – a "success equation" in industry-speak. The first goal was simple and focused on skating efficiency. Once that was established, Stafford moved on to his skill set, which meant maximizing his natural talents of being a big man (6-foot-2, 214 pounds) with great hands. The main problem that Belfry identified in Stafford's game was that he was moving the puck too fast when he received it.
"He wasn't making any plays," Belfry said. "He was getting it and moving it, getting it and moving it. The play hadn't developed yet."
So the next step in the success equation was extending possession by getting body positioning first before moving the puck. You would think the trade to Winnipeg, where the Jets had much better linemates to play with, would have spurned Stafford's rebirth, but Belfry maintains that the best work was done while the winger was still in a Sabres jersey – it's just that not many folks noticed.
"It was like a tree falling in a forest," Belfry said. "He wasn't getting a lot of offensive zone time and the points weren't there."
But the work had been done. So when Stafford got to Winnipeg, he was taking the puck to the net and getting results, because he was actually getting to play in the offensive zone with players who could complement him. Stafford's 19 points in 26 games with the Jets works out to 0.73 points per game, which would have made him one of the top scorers on the team had he played all season in the 'Peg.
Most importantly, he is playing his game, not a Frankenstein creation based on fear.
"His game is better supported now than when he scored 30 goals," Belfry said.
What is most rewarding for Belfry (who is a must-follow on Twitter) is that Stafford is still just 29 years old – there's a lot of hockey left in the Milwaukee native.
"He's a gifted athlete with a high learning curve," Belfry said. "There are so many guys in the NHL with that potential that have felt like they had to sacrifice certain parts of their game just to make it in the league."
If Stafford is any barometer, those players should begin to ask questions about themselves. Because with more teams demanding scoring from their bottom-six forwards, there is room for more skill players than ever in the NHL, even those who aren't blessed with Stafford's physical gifts – though it certainly didn't hurt to have them in his situation.