North Dakota sophomore and Buffalo Sabres prospect Drew Stafford enjoyed a career year in Grand Forks this season. He came into the Frozen Four ranked fourth on the team in scoring with 35 points (13 goals, 22 assists). He also currently ranks first on the team in game-winning goals (5) and plus/minus (+13).
In Thursday’s Frozen Four semi-final game versus Minnesota, Stafford notched two assists to in North Dakota’s 4-2 win. The victory marks the Fighting Sioux’s 12th trip to the National Championship game.
Hockey’s Future spoke with Drew Stafford just after the Fighting Sioux’s practice on Wednesday at the Schottenstein Center.
HF: North Dakota is here at the Frozen Four for the first time in four years, how does it feel to be here?
DS: It’s incredible. Obviously when you come into the beginning of the season, this is what you work for. All the work over the summer and the practices over the year make this where you want to be. We’ve taken the one step to get here now so obviously we need to take the next step on Thursday night.
HF: With all of the adversity that the team has had to go through this year, and I know that a lot of the responsibility of carrying the team has been put on your shoulders. Does it make it that much sweeter to be here, knowing everything you guys had to go through, especially in the second half of the season?
DS: Oh yeah. It definitely makes it a lot more sweeter being here now. With all of the ups and downs that we’ve gone through, the injuries that we’ve gone through, players being out of the lineup and losing, it’s definitely a good feeling to show up here. We had a great regional tournament. Everyone seems to be playing well right now, firing on all cylinders and the goaltending has been great. We couldn’t be happier but obviously we still have that big step to take on Thursday and we’re getting ready for that.
HF: The team played a lot of the year without Brady Murray and you seemed to have had to shoulder more of the offensive load. How has that been for you?
DS: Obviously not having Brady in the lineup is huge because he’s such a big part of our offensive corps here. He provides a lot for us. When we found out that he was going to be gone for the rest of the year, it was just a matter of some of the other guys realizing that they’re going to have to step up their game and I was one of them. I need to provide scoring, scoring opportunities and just overall offense. It’s just one of those things now. We have possibly two games left now, but we’re just focusing on the one on Thursday and hopefully I can provide all I can on Thursday night.
HF: Do you feel that with the increased responsibility that you have as far as offense is concerned, that it is also an area where your game has improved this year?
DS: Oh definitely, especially as far as consistency and the overall maturity in being able to step into that bigger offensive role. Last year I was more of a role player, filling in whenever, playing on all four lines and doing whatever the coach told me to do. This year I get a lot more ice time, a lot more time on the power play along with a bigger offensive role. My (offensive) ability, as the year has gone on, has been able to develop and play at the highest level possible in that role on this team. I think that I’ve developed that to a point where I can be happy about it but obviously there is more room for improvement.
HF: What area of your game do you feel is the most underrated?
DS: Because of the roles that I’ve been playing in my freshman year last year and particularly with the World Junior team in 2004, where I’m playing on a better stage I guess people are watching you more. When I was playing in those roles, I was playing more of a defensive role. I wasn’t in those offensive roles. Overall just my offensive game isn’t where I want it to be right now. It’s definitely something that I can improve but I do think that that’s one of my underrated areas. It’s kind of a hard question because it’s the first time that I’ve ever heard a question where I had to really think about it (laughs).
HF: How has the transition been for you from playing for Dean Blais last year to playing for Dave Hakstol this year?
DS: Actually there really hasn’t been that much. Obviously Coach Hakstol was here last year as an assistant coach. He was around all the guys and he was around everything, so it’s not all that different. Some of the philosophies are a little different but overall the idea of hard work, going all the time I think is pretty much the same. With Coach Hakstol as the head coach, he does a couple of things on his own that he didn’t do in the assistant coaching role under Dean Blais. Now that he’s the head coach, he’s doing a pretty good job.
HF: Do you also feel that with the expanded role on the team that you have, you are also taking on more of a leadership role on the team, knowing that the team will be losing some its leaders either at the end of this season or next season?
DS: Definitely. The best way to lead is obviously to lead by example, so I just try and do what I can on the ice. Some things need to be said in the locker room but I’m more into leading by playing well on the ice. We lose nine seniors this year. Our leadership corps is pretty big and they’ve done a great job especially down in the stretch run here. As far as next year when they’ll be gone, I’m hoping that myself and some of the other sophomores this year can step into that role because next year we’re only going to have two seniors.
HF: You touched a little while ago on the World Junior Championships. Obviously it was disappointing to finish fourth this year. What do you feel was the hardest part about that, other than the final outcome?
DS: It was an unbelievable experience no matter what. It’s an honor to be able to pull on that jersey, to be able to play for your country and play with all those guys. I had such a fun time with those guys. I mean we’re all friends. Obviously we didn’t finish how we wanted to but I think the most disappointing thing about it was that we had the opportunity to repeat on home soil and didn’t and that was such a huge thing for us. It didn’t go like we planned it but sometimes it’s just how it works.
HF: Having played on the last two WJC teams, what do you feel were the main differences between the two teams as far as the team chemistry and the way the teams played, other than the obvious outcome?
DS: The biggest thing was that Mike Eaves, who coached the 2004 team, was also the coach of the U-18 team that most of us (on the 2004 team) had played on earlier. This year’s coaching staff was great and I had such a great time with them too. It was a new way of doing things. Most of the guys this year had played together before but it was so different. When you haven’t been successful with some of these guys, it’s hard to come together so quickly. It was a fun experience no matter what way it ended, especially being at home.
HF: You really took on a big role with the World Junior Championship team. When Chris Bourque went down with his injury in the tournament, how did that affect you personally and the team?
DS: At the time he went down, he was playing on my line, so it was tough. Obviously in a tournament like that, you want to get lines and stick with them. You don’t really want to change too much, because it’s such a short tournament and you have to develop chemistry quickly. It was tough for him to go down because he’s such an offensively skilled player and we could’ve used all of the offense that we could have had in the tournament. It was hard losing him but we tried to make do.
HF: Have you had any contact with the Buffalo Sabres this year?
DS: I’ve seen them around a couple of times. They’ve come to a couple of games and I’ve talked with them. We’d talk about the things that I need to work on, other than that nothing too big.
HF: With prospects that are highly regarded, there’s always that question of “is this guy coming out early?” As one such prospect yourself, has that idea ever crossed your mind?
DS: Not really. Now that I’m in such a great organization here at the University of North Dakota and in a great program, I just can’t see myself being anywhere better right now as far as my development. I don’t really think about that. As far as putting any kind of deadline on that, it’s just whenever the time is right maybe I’ll make the jump. When that time comes I’ll have to sit down with my coaches and family and talk about it. Until that time comes and I’m ready to go, I’m going to be right here.
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