When the Dallas Stars recalled Ryan Garbutt from Austin, Stars fandom collectively tilted their head like a confused dog. The struggling Stars, a team with the stated goal of building around young talent, called up a 26 year old ECHL veteran center in lieu of several younger players currently having successful seasons. Former first round pick Scott Glennie is playing well. 21 year old Matt Fraser is leading the Baby Stars in goals. 22 year old Colton Sceviour looks the part of a third line center. The Stars went with the 26 year old journeyman though.
Considering the Stars lack of depth, and the fact that Garbutt was called up in response to the Jamie Benn injury, a more offensive option seemed to be a more prudent alternative. Instead the Stars subtly recalled a player that exemplifies all of the adjectives the Stars have used to describe themselves all year. Words and phrases such as "pesky", "pacey", "hard working", and "physical" could all be applied to the skill set we've seen from Garbutt in two games.
Garbutt the player has had a very positive impact on the past two games. Garbutt the symbol is an example of how the front office of a struggling team can get their team a quick spark, and an example of how the Stars can continue to break in youth while attempting to win if that is the route they choose to take.
"I don't mind playing the 4th line at this level. I want to work hard and give my all"
One of the dominant issues of the 2012 Stars season has been the question of work ethic. Glen Gulutzan has questioned the Stars work ethic on numerous occasions. Stars fans are currently still questioning the Stars work ethic. Part of the work ethic issue is energy. At various times throughout the season the Stars have had low to nonexistent energy levels. These power outages have had the nasty habit of sticking around over a multiple game period. What the Stars have desperately needed is someone to carry them into battle on a consistent basis. Steve Ott is supposed to be that guy, but all too often this season he has gone unnoticed. Brenden Morrow has been out of the lineup, but when he was in the lineup he had various debilitating ailments which sapped him of most of his effectiveness.
In two games Garbutt has been able to provide some of that energy. He and Adam Burish have arguably been the Stars two best skaters over the past week. They've brought the consistent forecheck the Stars have needed all season. Burish is finally starting to show the consistent effort that made him a fan favorite last season, but Garbutt brings more to the equation. Some of the extra substance he brings is skill, but some the extra substance is intangible.
The biggest compliment that you can give a professional hockey player is to say that every time they are on the ice you notice them. Whenever Garbutt is on the ice you realize he's out there. He applies very aggressive puck pressure, but usually not overaggressive. When he has been overaggressive he's turned around and worked to cover for his mistakes. He throws the body around, but he does so with an impact. He separates guys from the puck instead of leveling guys three seconds after they fire off a good scoring chance. He backchecks as hard as anyone on the Stars. He also has created offense. In two games Garbutt is +3 even strength scoring chances. The coaching staff noticed too. In his first taste of NHL action he saw five minutes of ice time. Against the Predators he saw the ice for ten minutes.
If the coaching staff recognizes how much energy Garbutt brings to the ice you can bet the players do as well, and we've now reached the realm of the intangible. Garbutt symbolizes competition. He isn't some prospect that the Stars think has a long future as part of their core that they wanted to call up to get some valuable experience. He is here to work. Garbutt is the first player in 14 seasons to make the NHL from the Corpus Christi IceRays. He is the 486th ECHLer to reach the NHL. He knows how hard it is to work up to the NHL. His admittedly small sample of NHL experience shows that he is willing to outwork that same NHL competition. No one with any survival instincts wants to see a new co-worker come into their environment and outperform them. His recent play and energy level forces the rest of the roster to join the fight or be vividly exposed on film as the guy not pulling his weight.
Such is the value of inexperience. Your average rookie is going to do everything in his power to force his club to keep him on the roster. Most will end up failing, but the energy is going to be there. This is the same logic that some clubs try to apply during training camp. This is a way of life in the NFL because of non-guaranteed contracts. If you aren't the best player at your position you most likely aren't going to play. You have to compete at your highest level to keep your job. The top players are going to stay the top players in hockey though. Garbutt is no threat to Jamie Benn.
What about Toby Petersen though? Or Tom Wandell? How about Jake Dowell? Eric Nystrom perhaps? These four have played significant bottom six minutes and done very little with them. Nystrom has three goals since Christmas. I haven't noticed Petersen or Dowell all season. When I do notice Wandell he's doing something awkward with the puck. Callups like Garbutt (or potentially Glennie, Sceviour, or Fraser) force the guys at the bottom of the roster to play at the highest level they possibly can to keep their jobs which inevitably makes the team as a whole better.
The machinations of the bottom six seem somewhat insignificant in light of the Stars current struggles, but it actually is significant. Players that succeed in limited minutes on struggling teams will eventually get looks. Tomas Vincour has played with Jamie Benn the past couple of weeks after playing a strong all around game on the fourth line. He's struggling now, but he wouldn't have had that opportunity without his fourth line minutes. Loui Eriksson didn't storm into the league as a Selke candidate capable of close to a point per game pace. He worked his way up the lineup. Given the same opportunity maybe Glennie will. Perhaps Sceviour will establish himself as a third line center. Maybe Fraser can be Michael Ryder in a few years.
Or maybe they turn into nothing, but a team that has the stated purpose of identifying a core of young players to build around has no business playing uninspired depth players when other options are available which might help the club in the future. Garbutt is but an example of what can happen, and by the time you read this he could already be back in Austin. The moral of this story is that the Stars roster as a whole is stagnant due to the financial and development ruts they've been in for four seasons now. The seemingly unimportant Garbutt call up has shown the positive influence a motivated player can have on the entire lineup even if he isn't the full reason for the surge. It would do the Stars some good to take their own cue and give some more Baby Stars a look in the coming weeks to create as much legitimate competition for ice time as possible to give Stars fans as much hope for 2013 as reasonably possible.