For a very long time the Sabres seemed to have been in the market for a big powerforward with grit who could skate top-nine minutes and drop the gloves whenever necessary.
Back in 2009 when the core was being whipped around like ragdolls on a nightly basis, former team president Larry Quinn and GM Darcy Regier, along with Head Scout Kevin Devine thought they had found the answer. After a some seasoning, 13th-overall pick Zack Kassian would surely be that guy.
I remember the draft party was held at the Albright Knox Art Gallery for the first round that year and when Kassian's name was called, thousands of chests pumped in unison as management and Sabres' fans were sure they found their very own Milan Lucic.
The Sabres drafted some hefty boys that year. Along with the 6'3" 210 lb. Kassian, they drafted 6'5" 200 lb. Brayden McNabb in the third round and Marcus Foligno (6'4" 223 lbs.,) in the fourth. Neither Kassian or McNabb are with the team anymore. Kassian was a the main target for Vancouver in the Cody Hodgson trade (February 27, 2012) while Tropp was waived by the Sabres on November 27, 2013 and was picked up by the Columbus Blue Jackets the following day.
Foligno is lugging through his third full season with the Sabres.
When the Sabres finished the "purge of the core" with the trade of Ryan Miller and Steve Ott to St. Louis nearly five years after the 2009 draft, amidst the picks and a good-sized prospect in William Carrier was a physically matured, 6'2" 231 lb. powerforward in Chris Stewart.
For whatever reason, Stewart spent the first six years of his NHL career bouncing around a bit. Originally drafted by Colorado with the 18th overall pick in 2006, he would be part of a blockbuster trade with St. Louis. On February 19, 2011 Stewart, Kevin Shattenkirk and Colorado's 2nd round pick went to the Blues for Eric Johnson, Jay McClement and their 1st round pick. Stewart had 30 points (13+17) in 36 games with the Avalanche before the trade.
He would finish with his second 28-goal season in a row that year.
During his first full season with St. Louis he took a nose-dive to 15 goals and 15 assists in 79 games before kicking it back in with 18 goals and 18 assists in a 48-game, lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. Before the trade to Buffalo, he was putting up a respectable 15 goals and 11 assists in 58 games for the Blues.
There's been a rush to judgment on Stewart and his future in Buffalo, something that started almost immediately after the trade. He'll be an unrestricted free agent at season's end and many think that he should be moved at the deadline fetching a draft pick or a prospect in return.
There comes a time when the rebuild needs to turn into a "build" and the addition of any picks, especially outside the first round (which they won't get for Stewart) is a waste. The organization is full of picks and prospects right now and that potential second-round pick or mid-level prospect won't add any value to an organization overrun with players of that pedigree.
In addition to that, "bigger, stronger, faster," has been the mantra for the Sabres since they commenced the rebuild in 2012. It's a direct quote from Devine, a theme that Regier focused upon and something that present GM Tim Murray continued with when he traded for some big powerforwards using the term, "heavies."
Stewart is a big, strong man who can skate very well. He cut his teeth in the Western Conference which is generally a bigger, stronger and tougher conference than their counterparts in the East. Yet he was able to produce points, albeit somewhat inconsistently, posting 115 goals and 113 assists in 377 games (.60 points/game.)
There's no question Stewart has been having a rough go of it since coming to Buffalo. He scored only his second goal of the season this past Wednesday against the Winnipeg Jets and is a minus-11 on the year. Since coming to Buffalo he has played in 27 games registering two goals and one assist. For whatever reason, be it the last place team he's playing on, the linemates he's with or the potential to be traded yet again, Stewart is stuck in a serious funk. But, there's a point-producer in there somewhere. The question is, on what team will that 50-point powerforward re-emerge.
The Sabres should definitely consider re-signing Stewart. He's 27 yrs. old and is just entering his prime and there's not another player on the team who has his combination tools. Regardless of the stats, Stewart brings size, skating, and toughness to the ice every night. It's the kind of toughness that's been missing for a number of years.
Being reared in the western conference, he was tested time and time again dropping the gloves 37 times (including preseason and playoffs.) And just this past year he did something no player other than Patrick Kaleta had done--willingly engage Boston's Lucic.
(thanks to hockeyfights.com for the stats and the vid)
Absolutely no fear. Methinks had Stewart been with the team when Lucic bowled over Miller, things would've been different.
And were he able to get at 6'5" 207 lb. Adam Lowry after the Winnipeg Jets rookie boarded Kaleta on Wednesday, he may have added another to his fight-card. Even though he didn't see the hit, he knew what to do. After the game Stewart said, "I really didn't see much. I just saw Kaleta down on the ice and I just tried to get in there. You gotta stick up for your teammates. We gotta do it for anyone, especially Patty Kaleta who's a heart and soul guy."
His demeanor in the locker room when asked about the Lowry/Kaleta incident and his matter-of-fact delivery said it all. It's not a token gesture for Stewart, it's how he plays the game. He knows what it's all about and he knows his role. He respects the organization and his teammates.
It's something the team has been in search of for quite a while.