Sometimes in the NHL when a player signs with a team they just seamlessly fit it with what the style of how they want to play on the ice and that’s exactly what the New Jersey Devils have gotten when they signed Drew Stafford to a one-year/$800,000 deal late this summer (August 25). Strangely they brought in Jimmy Hayes on a PTO two days before the Stafford signing and then eventually signed Hayes on the eve of the season.
Now on his fourth team (Buffalo, Winnipeg, Boston), the Milwaukee, Wisconsin native has put up 404 points (186g-218a) including 49 power play goals and 29 game-winners. On a relatively young team, he’s been the perfect compliment to ride shotgun with some of their prized prospects.
Stafford has become a key part of the Devils top-6 through the first three weeks of the NHL season, he’s been able to slot in with different players and he’s also added some much-needed scoring depth to one of the league’s lowest scoring teams last season. Through five games he’s racked up four points (3g-1a) and netted the game-winning goal against the New York Rangers on October 14.
Stafford Signing Looking Smart
Though he signed late in the summer, this was in the works for a while during the offseason according to Stafford. “It’s worked out really well so far. I came into camp knowing and believing in myself and what I can provide. I was just looking for an opportunity to show that and I was fortunate and grateful enough that in talking to Ray (Shero) and (John) Hynes over the summer that there was a mutual interest there,” the 31-year-old veteran of 730 NHL games told The Hockey Writers.
“I’ve know (Andy) Greene forever, I know Travis (Zajac) since college, I knew Schneids and a lot of these guys so it seemed like it would be a good fit off the ice and on the ice as well. I feel like I have a lot more to give to the game. I was able to come in and have a good preseason, unfortunately, I had some bad luck with the injury thing opening day, but I was able to come back and continue that kind of start.”
The Devils have become a faster, more aggressive team in the mold of what Coach Hynes wants them to become. Stafford himself will tell you he’s not the fastest player in the league, but what he lacks in speed he makes up for with his knowledge of the game and understanding of where to be on the ice in certain situations and rushes into the offensive zone.
“We really wanted to emphasize down low, below the dots, how we were going to be harder on pucks, getting bodies in front of the net, funneling pucks to the net,” Stafford said, explaining the details of the Devils’ philosophies. “I think that’s one of my biggest strengths – my play down low and my ability to hang onto and protect pucks, get pucks in the dirty areas. If I do get my stick on it luckily enough, I have somewhat decent hands (grins) to put it away.”
“To be able to play with guys like Nico (Hischier) or Hallsy, or even Jo (Marcus Johansson) or Pav there for a minute in the preseason, we have a wealth of talent to go around and I think I can compliment any of those guys pretty well with just trying my best to play solid down low,” he added. “We’ve been trying to hammer this out at practice every day — getting pucks and bodies to the net and I think I fit right into that kind of system.”
Stafford the Prophet
Most recently he’s found himself on the right side of Hischier and Taylor Hall and the results have been excellent. Against Tampa Bay Stafford potted two goals, including the game-tying goal late in the third game, and two nights later in Ottawa he set up Hischier for his first NHL goal and Hall had four assists. Following the game against Tampa Stafford was prophetic when asked about the development of Hischier, who the Devils selected first overall in the 2017 NHL Draft in June.
“You can see he’s due (to score a goal), he’s had some high-quality chances and it’s just a matter of keeping him up. He could have six or seven, easily by now so he just has to keep doing what he’s doing and (we have to) try to find ways to get him the puck. He’s finding ways to dish too so — so far so good and it’s been leading to big wins. He’s been very impressive to me so far. It seems like we have a little bit of chemistry and I’m just trying my best to keep up (with Hall and Nico),” he added with a chuckle.
High Praise for Hischier
If anyone around the NHL had any doubts that Hischier could survive in the NHL as an 18-year-old, those doubts have been silenced with the Swiss kid’s play on the ice through the first eight games of his career. Off the ice, and in practice, as Stafford told us, he’s been even more impressive.
“He’s so young, so it’s the habits that he already has; at this age it’s huge,” Stafford explained when asked what has impressed him about Hischier thus far. “His tenacity, staying on pucks. Not circling away, instead (he’s) battling. A lot of guys his age that come in, not everyone is a generational player. I know he’s a first overall pick, he’s a heck of a player for his age. I think to display that battle and tenacity on the puck already, I think that’s the biggest thing that’s impressed me.”
“The way his body make up is – he’s only going to get better. He’s only going to get stronger. To have those habits already implemented in his game, that’s huge. The skill set, that’s a given, we all know how good he is with the puck and stuff. I’m more looking at his battle on pucks, and his tenacity, and he has it.”
Stafford Scores Goals Not Touchdowns
In that game against Tampa, we referenced earlier where Stafford lit the lamp two times, both of his goals were really different. The first came as he and Hischier crossed the blue line on a rush, shuffled the puck to the vet and headed towards the crease. Stafford snapped a wrist shot that found it’s way past Peter Budaj and gave New Jersey an early lead.
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) October 18, 2017
On the second goal during a power play, Hischier fired a shot towards the net from the wing and Stafford crashed the crease from the slot and was able to stash the rebound past Budaj to tie the game 4-4 with just over four minutes left in regulation. “We work on a few different plays where we’re trying to funnel pucks on net and I was able to and lucky enough to get a stick on it,” he replied when asked about the scoring play on the tying goal. “I got a decent redirection there and was able to pick up a greasy rebound. We’re always trying to funnel pucks on net and he has a good knack for doing that.”
Stafford laughed a bit when THW pointed out how different his two goals on the night were. “Yeah,” he said with a laugh, “that’s just trying to get pucks on net and you never know. Sometimes you get the lucky breaks like that and you shoot those, you funnel pucks on net, get bodies to the net. Sometimes you get a lucky break, most of the times you don’t but you can get one that bounces in off a skate or a rebound pops open and we have to make sure we get bodies to the net and I thought that was the difference tonight.”
Stafford himself has been the difference for the Devils through these first eight games in which they have turned some heads throughout the NHL with their 6-2-0 start. Now the biggest question surrounding them is can they keep up this style of play and success as the weeks and months move on.
Dan Rice is in his 9th year of reporting for THW & has covered NJ Devils home games for 15+ years at various websites. He began his journey working for legendary broadcaster/writer Stan Fischler from 2002-04 & completed an internship at the ECHL; he also has been writing features for the NWHL (nwhl.zone) website since 2016.