BUFFALO – Drew Stafford called it a “healthy separation.” The Winnipeg Jets winger said he has no ill will toward anyone here. He enjoyed his nine-year Sabres career.
As a struggling veteran months away from free agency last year, Stafford knew the rebuilding Sabres would trade him. Sure enough, Stafford, 30, was dealt Feb. 11, 2015 in the blockbuster that brought defenseman Zach Bogosian and winger Evander Kane to the Sabres.
“I was kind of expecting something was going to happen,” Stafford said this morning prior his first game back in Buffalo. “Either way, the direction the team was going, I knew they wanted to make some changes. Obviously, it’s been beneficial for both sides.”
The change of scenery has reignited Stafford’s career, which stalled following a 31-goal campaign five years ago. The 2004 first-round pick has 20 goals in 70 games this season.
“The transition was very smooth,” Stafford said.
Nine goals in 26 contests following the trade helped the Jets roar into the playoffs for the first time since they returned to Winnipeg in 2011.
“Getting thrown into the playoff mix last year, that’s what you play for,” he said.
Stafford signed a two-year, $8.7 million contract with the Jets in the summer.
“It was an easy choice to come back,” he said.
Still, while Stafford’s happy in Winnipeg, he has some special memories of Buffalo.
“My son was born here,” Stafford said. “I got a lot of respect for the fans here. Over the years, had some good times and obviously some bad times, too. But it’s good to be back and see a lot of familiar faces.”
Walking into the First Niagara Center as a visitor was “definitely a little weird,” said Stafford, who experienced “the full circle of things” here. He joined the Sabres during their Presidents’ Trophy run and left during their darkest days.
“It looks like they’re really doing things right here turning this organization around,” he said.