Just 16 games into the season it already feels as if we have seen two very different Dallas Stars teams on the ice. The team that started the season 2-4-1, that at one point had Tom Wandell and Cody Eakin as the top two centers on the ice, is not the same team that will take the ice tonight against Vancouver.
The line combinations are completely different. The defensive pairings are vastly different. While the Stars are still without the full compliment of forwards on the top six, there's certainly a better balance on the team than what existed just a month ago when it seemed as if the Stars could contend as the worst hockey team to take the ice since the 1970s.
There is also a very interesting dynamic that has been added to the team in recent weeks and it's tough to say it hasn't been effective. Ryan Garbutt and Antoine Roussel, while seemingly interchangeable when the team is actually fully healthy, will be on the ice at the same time for just the fifth time this season.
What Garbutt and Roussel actually contribute to the team is certainly up for debate, and clouded by the points the two have contributed their past few games. What is tough to deny, however, is that they certainly seem to have some effect on the team when it comes to providing an energy impact on the third and fourth lines.
Garbutt and Roussel have both become instantly popular with fans, both in Austin and in Dallas. For fans, it's very easy to latch onto the "blue collar" players, who may not have the top end talent that others in the NHL might have but make up for it by playing all-out hockey every single shift they're on the ice. It's fun to see, it's easy for fans to quantify through what they actually see on the ice and it can certainly be effective.
Just how effective have they been, however?
When we take a closer look at the numbers, we see that both Garbutt and Roussel -- along with Tomas Vincour -- have been three of the forwards that have struggled the most at pushing offense, relative to the rest of the team, despite getting some substantial offensive zone numbers. Those numbers really stand out when compared to Reilly Smith and Cody Eakin -- Smith has been the best regular forward for the Stars not named Ray Whitney at actually creating offense and pushing the play toward the opposition's net.
What about the actual offensive production we've seen from Garbutt and Roussel, who both have three goals on the season? Logic tells us that their offensive production is nowhere near sustainable; sort of a combination of two players equaling what Eric Nystrom was doing last October and November for the Stars before eventually coming down to earth.
What's even more interesting is that -- aside from the actual goal production, which is certainly important -- Garbutt and Roussel have not performed all that much better than others on the team in an actual quantifiable manner. Yet neither have come anywhere close to being vilified in the same manner as others for the team this season, due in large part to the perception of what "energy" brings to a team, versus a player that perhaps doesn't play with such a high-flying style that has nearly the same ancillary numbers as Garbutt and Roussel.
Which is where advanced numbers and the "eye test" start to really come at odds with each other. Have Garbutt and Roussel actually added a positive level of play to the Stars and contributed to the success of the team? The numbers say the two struggle at even strength when compared to the rest of the team, although there is also the caveat that both are getting third and fourth line minutes against relatively tougher competition.
Now, Roussel and Garbutt have apparently become two go-to players for the team's penalty kill, however. Both are absolutely excelling in that role for the Stars and a factor that absolutely cannot be overlooked when attempting to quantify their contributions to the team.
So, let's forget the advanced numbers for a bit.
There's no doubt that Garbutt and Roussel play a tenacious style of hockey that we love to see as fans, and it certainly seems to have a good impact on a team that perhaps was in dire need of an injection of energy and adrenaline. Steve Ott was that sort of player for the Stars, who would do all he could to get his team back into the game with his high-flying ways, and perhaps that's why Stars fans have latched onto these two players this season.
There's also something to be said that the way they play the game has had a positive effect on their linemates as well, opening up the offensive chances for players like Cody Eakin and Michael Ryder and providing some decent help for Eric Nystrom and Vernon Fiddler on their line as well. Their style seems to have found a certain chemistry that is working for the Stars on the third and fourth lines, as well as on the PK.
The reality is, however, that the more talented and successful teams in the NHL won't have room for players like Roussel and Garbutt -- at least outside of the fourth line. The Stars have played two games with both Garbutt and Roussel on the ice and two of them (both games against Calgary) were two of more debilitating losses of the season -- although certainly not on the shoulders of those two alone.
So what have we learned from this process, of attempting to quantify the actual value to the Stars of players known mostly for their energetic ways? The most stats-heavy of those among us will say they have little to no value, especially as the offensive production regresses. The rest, however, will see two players who have had a positive impact on the ice and for the overall attitude and emotional well-being of a team in transition -- a quality that certainly cannot be overlooked but is in no way actually measurable.
For now, I'll appreciate seeing these two players giving it everything they have on the ice every single shift; sports always needs players like these who won't take a single second they have on the ice for granted and provide an energetic push for those around them.