Best wishes to RJ

Drew Stafford battled Clarke MacArthur (16) in his last appearance Thursday. ©2013, Dan Hickling, Olean Times Herald

Slumping Stafford benched as Gerbe returns for Sabres

Bill Hoppe     Olean Times Herald
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MONTREAL – In just 32 days on the job, interim coach Ron Rolston has quickly put his mark on the Buffalo Sabres, scratching five regular forwards.

Prior to Saturday, struggling winger Drew Stafford had escaped a benching, only receiving some fourth-line duty for his poor play. With a two-goal effort last Saturday and the shootout-tying score Thursday, it appeared the assistant captain would keep dressing.

But Stafford, who has only four goals and a team-worst minus-12 rating in 31 games, was a healthy scratch for the Sabres’ 2-1 win over the Canadiens on Saturday inside the Bell Centre.

The 27-year-old veteran understands why Rolston sat him.

“I mean, it’s no secret I haven’t been getting on the score sheet,” Stafford said Saturday afternoon. “But other than that, it’s pretty simple.”

What was Rolston’s message to Stafford?

“We want everyone to play and play hard,” Rolston said. “We got a lot of guys. We got some tough decisions right now.”

With Stafford scratched for the first time in years, winger Nathan Gerbe, a spectator for two games, returned. Slick winger Thomas Vanek played after a one-game absence (hip), so tough guy John Scott was scratched.

More on Gerbe later.

Stafford, a 31-goal scorer two years ago, struggled from the get-go this season. He finally scored his first goal Feb. 15, the Sabres’ 15th game.

The 2004 first-round pick knows he could’ve been benched long ago.

“I don’t know if surprised is the right word,” Stafford said about sitting. “I mean, it’s definitely disappointing. It’s his decision, and something I have to respect and have to work my way getting back in the lineup.”

Stafford’s name has been swirling in recent trade rumors. He told the Times Herald on Friday he hadn’t requested a deal, saying he wouldn’t quit on the Sabres.

“Obviously, I’m not going to stop,” Stafford said Saturday. “I’ve told you guys before the game reveals your character. The kind of situation right now, this is obviously extremely disappointing. We’ve been winning a couple games as well. I definitely want to be a part of the solution. … I have to be a professional.”

The Milwaukee native’s in the second season of a four-year, $16 million contract, so that could scare away potential suitors.

Stafford joined Gerbe, Marcus Foligno, Jochen Hecht and Patrick Kaleta as recent healthy scratches.

“It’s never easy,” Stafford said. “I’m not happy about it.”

Gerbe, while diplomatic, clearly believes he should’ve kept playing.

“I thought I’ve been playing really well, getting chances when I’m out there and working hard,” said Gerbe, who had three goals in 25 games entering Saturday. “So that’s all I can control.”

Rolston was blunt about Gerbe’s play, saying Thursday, “He was a player that … didn’t give us a reason to keep him right now.”

Gerbe, when informed of Rolston’s words, said, “No, I don’t agree with that at all. I need minutes to play better.”

He also said: “Anyone would want more than five minutes.”

The 25-year-old has been averaging 12:07 a game this season.

Gerbe has only played less than 6:01 once this season. He hasn’t asked Rolston for more ice time, however.

“I would never complain,” he said. “I just keeping playing hard, and hopefully that pays off.”

Gerbe said he’s 100 percent following offseason back surgery that sidelined him until Jan. 24. He scored twice Feb. 28 and again on March 3. He hasn’t scored since.

He was an elite scorer in the NCAA, the AHL and has showcased flashes of that ability in the NHL, tallying 16 times two years ago.

But what’s it going to take for him to break through as a scorer in the big leagues?

“I think it’s consistency of playing,” Gerbe said. “It’s tough going in and out and (skating) five minutes. So I think it’s just consistency of getting confidence and playing.”

Notes: Sabres defenseman Andrej Sekera missed his fourth straight game. He could return this week. … Saturday was the Canadiens’ 349th straight sellout. … Gerbe skated on the left wing with Hecht and Kaleta. Vanek played on the left with Tyler Ennis and Ville Leino.

Related: Struggling Stafford wants to remain with Sabres

Relentless Sabres roar back to down Leafs in ultra-intense tilt

Gerbe not giving Sabres a reason to play him

Sabres’ Ruff trying to keep struggling Stafford ‘in the right place’

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