Drew Stafford’s value to the New Jersey Devils can’t be found in a box score. It won’t show up in the pregame notes and you won’t see it in any advanced stat breakdown. The value of having Stafford, a 33-year-old veteran presence who has an NCAA title, and a World Juniors gold medal on his resume next to the 841 NHL games that he’s played in is immeasurable. On a roster that the average age is 25, Stafford is one of only four players that is over the age of 30.
“He’s like a coach on the ice, off the ice, he’s a guy that really gets it. He’s at the point in his career where you can see he still makes an impact on the game,” said Devils coach John Hynes, who gets excited when he’s asked about Stafford’s contributions. “I think first and foremost when you have older guys, they have to be able to play and Drew certainly can play. Then it’s the things that they bring outside of the on-ice aspect, which is helping younger guys, promoting the culture, how they practice, how they work, how they prepare; and Drew brings all of those things to the table at a high, high level.”
On a team where almost everyone is younger and faster than him, Stafford feels like that’s the easier part of keeping up with his younger teammates. It’s off the ice where the cultural differences tend to get noticed more. “Yeah sometimes,” he said smiling when asked if it’s hard to keep up with a group of young Devils like Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, and Joey Anderson who are all 20-years-old. Just some stuff with the generation gap. At the end of the day we’re all going out on the same ice, we all have to put in the same amount of work and try to find ways to get better. The year hasn’t gone the way we wanted it to as far as making the playoffs but we can still finish on a good note by working as hard as we can and playing with pride.”
Zacha’s Wing Man
One player that has really benefited from having Stafford around the past two years has been Pavel Zacha, who just turned 22-years-old on April 6. Whenever the two have been paired together on a line Zacha seems to find his name on the scoresheet a lot more often and even if he doesn’t, he’s noticeable on the ice. “Playing with a guy like Pavel Zacha in the middle, I think we have great chemistry. It’s all about trying to finish with a little bit of pride and a little bit of character,” said the veteran winger.
“He’s a really smart player, he tells you on the bench where to be or what to do. I think it helps you a lot to understand each other on the ice and he’s a really smart player who can find the open areas on the ice,” Zacha said of playing alongside a player who’s 11-years older than him. “He’s really hard on the puck too, which helps the whole line. He can battle for pucks and win them, he’s fun to play with.”
When informed of Zach’s praise and Hynes’ glowing description of how valuable he is to the team, Stafford was a bit surprised but also thought it was cool at the same time. “Nice! That makes me feel like I’m doing my part to help push the needle, that I’m part of the solution,” he said with a grin. “It’s nice to hear those things but at the same time, that’s my job. That’s what I’m here for and I take a lot of pride in that kind of leadership and what I bring (to the team) in that aspect.”
Not Done Yet
Stafford didn’t expect to play much this season. He expected to be a guy who can plug in for a few games at times during the season when injuries mounted or young players needed a breather. But things don’t always go as planned. New Jersey was decimated by injuries from November on. They felt so far out of any playoff race that veterans started being traded for future assets. But Stafford took everything in stride and was happy to be able to contribute to the team in any way they needed.
“Coming into camp I was (just) trying to earn a job, earn a spot, and they had faith in me coming back – in what I could bring on and off the ice. Unfortunately, the way things went (early) I wasn’t playing a lot but I was still trying to contribute in other ways. We had a lot of injuries, a lot of lineup changes and I got to go in and play more. I just try to contribute the best I can on the ice too,” Stafford said of his role coming into the season.
He also said he’s not quite ready to hang up the skates just yet, and if he does come back it likely would only be with the New Jersey Devils. “Yeah I would,” he responded when The Hockey Writers asked if he would return in red and black for another season. “My family loves it here, I love it here, and I feel like there’s a spot for me here, a role for me here. I can continue to do what I did this year. It’s nice to be able to play a little bit more here at the end here to kind of know that you still can play,” he said laughing. “If there’s an opportunity to come back I 100 percent would, I don’t want to play anywhere else.”
“(This season) playing in my 800th NHL game and scoring the winning goal in the shootout (in Arizona) was pretty cool. The other night when I scored (also against Arizona) that was the first game I had all three of my kids at the game watching so that was pretty cool too. Any way to contribute on the ice, I’ll take it.”
That would seem to be exactly what coach Hynes and his staff want again, having Stafford as a mentor/de facto coach/13th or 14th forward. “He’s a high, high, high character leader. Things haven’t gone the way that we wanted them to this year but you’re looking at a – people sometimes wonder why you sign guys and over the course of a year why sometimes you want to play older players, veteran players on your team. This is a guy who is a great leader for our young guys and when adversity hits you need people in your room that have been through it, people that
“He’s been great for our young guys, for our culture, and you’re looking at a guy who is making the most of an opportunity. He takes care of himself, he’s a tremendous teammate, and it’s nice to see him have some success on the scoreboard because he certainly deserves it for everything that he’s brought to our team and organization.”
This season Stafford appeared in 57 games (7th most among forwards) after only playing five in the first two months and he chipped in 13 points (5g-8a). The Devils would probably like to shrink that games played number down a bit, but we fully expect that Stafford will be back in New Jersey on another one-year deal for under a million dollars.
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.