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.
Ok, so I’ve got to know. How did you guys do in that game where you got to center the 2nd line?
We’re all friends here, and we encourage openness and honesty. Go I’ll be honest.
We were smoked. The night before, we lost 16-1. It didn’t go well.
The day I was in the game, I think we tightened up a tiny bit (or, much more likely, they took their foot off the gas because they felt bad for us) and we lost 14-3. I want to say I was a -3 or -4. I was definitely on the ice for one goal for, and at least three against, but very likely more.
These games were the two worst outings of the season, BY FAR. I think the largest deficit we lost besides these games was two, maybe three. I can’t remember any other game allowing 6, let alone 14.
Ouch. Although getting smoked by one of the best in the nation on a road trip is probably less painful than having ten run up on you in your own barn by the St. Louis Blues.
The team we played was a D-I school (we were a D-II school) and they went to the national tournament that season. We went 7-17-1 (back when it was okay to tie).
It was bad, but it was good at the same time. When you get a little comfortable in your own little world, you forget that there’s a big gap in talent in every step in hockey. Alternatively, we played a D-III team at one point during the season, and destroyed them 15-1.
Presumably, it’s a similar jump from the AHL to the NHL. The best team in the minors is still a far sight from the worst team in the NHL (okay, maybe they could beat the Maple Leafs) and that’s why you’ve got to give players who make the jump a little while to get adjusted.
Could I have played a game for a D-I school and not looked terribly out of place? Maybe. But it would absolutely help to ease into that and build up to it. Much like Eaves or Helm will have to do to jump up from Four to One/Two. Or Cory Emmerton will have to do to become a regular NHLer after being a competent AHLer.
What team was it?
Our worst loss was against the eventual DI champions 12-4. Strangely enough, we had beaten them earlier that year (we almost always split with them), but they came back and just had one of those games where every damn thing went in. It was embarrassing, but after I got pulled the other guy missed 6 more so I didn’t feel quite as bad.
It was the last place on Earth you’d expect to have a quality hockey program: The University of Arizona. Evidently, they had been to the national tournament something like 8 years in a row, they had an unbelievable facility ONLY for them that held 7,000 screaming fans (who could buy tickets at Ticketmaster or in a season ticket package), and former pros manning their bench.
It was wild. We laughed about going to Tucson for a hockey game until we realized we were SORELY outmatched.
Ah yeah, I know they put together a decent program down there. We considered going down there for a trip, but we ended up playing Flordia Gulf Coast instead, who’s also got a surprisingly great program (made up entirely of Canadians). We picked the wrong schools I think.