A strange thing happens when the off-season boredom sets in. Fans spend our free time dreaming about which rookie blows the doors off of training camp and comes out of nowhere to make the team. Perhaps we’re all brainstorming, thinking of potential returns for “Hudler and a 2nd.” Or maybe we’ll scribble some dream lines on a cocktail napkin in an effort to speed October 7th along.
And then an even stranger thing happens. Guys make their way into lineup spots that they don’t necessarily belong. No matter how much I’d love it, Todd Bertuzzi isn’t a fourth line kind of guy. Patrick Eaves has taken a few spins on Pav’s wing… and it just seems wrong. Darren Helm, as awesome as he is at nearly everything he’s thrust into, isn’ t a top six forward.
And that’s okay.
Darren Helm is a monster on the penalty kill, and does amazing things with limited ice time. Could he survive an increase in responsibility and icetime? Maybe. Patrick Eaves does a whole lot with very little ice time, and has proven he’s a viable scoring option when he’s relied upon. Does that mean he can be one of the two human beings who gets to play with arguably the most dynamic center on Earth? Hey, perhaps.
But it isn’t as easy as simply jotting it onto a napkin. Why, yes! I do have anecdotes!
When I played in college, I got very few minutes. I was an “end of the bench,” 4-8 minutes a night kind of player. There were some games that I, literally, only saw one shift. On every stage, there are guys that are big minute players, and there are complimentary players that have found a niche or play a certain role well.
I played on the fourth line, occasionally bounced up to the third. My linemates changed on a near-daily basis. That kind of depth role doesn’t afford the luxury of allowing chemistry to form, and you were sort of expected to make due with what little time you had to prepare together, which — frankly — didn’t bother any of us. Our top line consisted of three unbelievable hockey players who played nearly every minute together, and none of us would have changed that, even if it meant a handful more minutes to be spread around. In the bottom six, where I was firmly entrenched, guys would swap in and out of the lineup, a la the Drew Miller/Kris Draper/Jiri Hudler rotation from last season.
One weekend, in the middle of the season and right before our Thanksgiving break from school, we took the one trip that required a flight (we flew commercial, Modano would have hated it). In the third period of the first game of a back-to-back weekend 1,800 miles away from home, the second line’s center took a chop on the wrist. It was ugly, purple, and swollen. We would learn that he wouldn’t be able to play the Saturday matinee.
Like he always did before a game, Coach comes into the locker room with a piece of paper and runs through the night’s lines. The top line went as it always had, with our three superstars’ names said all in a row. He would continue, “line 2, centered by Petrella…”
The night before, I played on the fourth line — maybe five or six minutes of ice time. The norm. But today, I was going to be getting top six minutes, which meant somewhere in the neighborhood of fifteen. To say I was ill-prepared to hear that would be an understatement. If there was a camera in the locker room, it would have caught a bewildered look on my face, with wheels turning as if I was holding back from asking, “are you sure you don’t mean… anyone else in this room?”
The increased workload was staggering. On most nights, I was expected to give our top six a minute to catch their breath, maybe beat out an icing call, and generally not do anything stupid that my team would have to pay for. That day, however, my job was to line up against some of the other team’s top players (a team, by the way, that came into the weekend ranked 7th in the nation) and be counted upon to contribute to the narrative in a game like I’d never done before.
I did admirably, in that I didn’t do anything overtly stupid to prove to the world I didn’t belong there. Oh, except maybe this (yeah, that’s 8 seconds of actual audio from that game). It wasn’t a role I relished in. And it wasn’t a role that I felt I could do for more than a game at a time. After the break, we were nearing full health and I was relegated back to the bottom six. You know… where I belonged.
Can someone like Justin Abdelkader, Patrick Eaves, or Darren Helm overcome the magnificent jump in responsibility and talent that they’d see bouncing from the fourth to the second? Maybe they can — they’re all capable hockey players and nothing seems to bother them: whether it’s a healthy scratching or a game where they see fewer minutes than usual.
Some players relish in their roles. Other guys succeed in whatever role they’re thrown. Others still take some time to get used to new ones. On the Red Wings, guys have been fortunate to develop at their own pace (like Zetterberg seeing fourth and third line minutes in his first years) to eventually become what we all hope they can. If Darren Helm is your second line center, it won’t be all of a sudden — it’ll start in the third period of a blowout game… or rotating in when someone gets injured and has to leave the game… or as an emergency fill-in when two guys get hurt on a road trip. I’d like to see him get the chance, but I hope no one bails on him if it’s proven that he’s more useful to the team as a third or fourth line guy.
You can’t win without some killer fourth liners.