When the Dallas Stars traded Mike Ribeiro to Washington last summer, it was a bit of a surprise move. Not because of who they were trading away (Ribeiro had only one year left on his contract and he was a part of the leadership group that had been at the helm of a sinking ship for three consecutive seasons), but because of the position that he plays.
Even with Ribeiro on the roster, the Stars were thin up the middle. Jamie Benn, who played on the wing throughout his junior career, made the move to center, and luckily for Dallas he was a quick study at it. Cody Eakin came back from Washington, but he had a limited number of NHL games to his name, and was far from a sure thing to make the Stars roster for 2012-13.
The Ribeiro trade made more sense after the Stars announced the Derek Roy-Steve Ott swap. Roy had struggled in his final few years with the Sabres, but had previously established himself as a very solid top-six center. The Stars were hoping that he would replace Ribeiro's offense while upgrading his defense. Dallas wanted to get the Benn line out for more offensive opportunities and with Ribeiro around that wasn't really possible.
How has Roy been utilized through the first half of 2013?
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In 2011-12, Ribeiro started 54% of his shifts in the offensive zone (the highest number among Stars centers). Benn was behind him at 48%. Dallas isn't a team that utilized (or utilizes) a focused zone-start strategy (like, say the Canucks or Penguins), but it is important to get offensive players out on the ice in offensive situations. Benn is adequate defensively, but you don't want him wasting his energy on checking players rather than creating offense.
Roy has been very solid in the role that Dallas created for him. He is starting 45% of his shifts in the offensive zone, while Benn is at 54%. Roy's defensive acumen (he won't ever win a Selke, but he knows his way around his own zone) has enabled Glen Gulutzan the luxury of keeping Benn off the ice for defensive zone faceoffs. Little things like this matter a lot in the long run. Roy's defensively ability has also allowed the Stars to shelter Eakin a little bit. And that is never a bad thing for a young player learning the ropes in the best league on the planet.
Roy isn't drawing penalties like he used to in Buffalo, but a small sample size could be to blame. He has 14 points in 17 games - fantastic production for a second line center. Additionally, Roy has taken only one penalty, which is a welcomed sight for a Stars team that still struggles with discipline issues.
And the best may be yet to come, as Roy has only recently started to feel 100% on the ice (for the first time in a few seasons).
I'm not making excuses for Derek Roy, but yesterday was the first day he said he felt 100 percent healthy," Stars coach Glen Gulutzan said. "I thought he was really good tonight, he was quick on pucks, he made good little plays, that's what we're going to get moving forward. It's been a while since he felt 100 percent, but we're relying on him, and we think he can deliver."
For more on Roy's strong play of late, read Derek's post from last Friday.
But it's when you closely watch Roy on the ice that you truly notice all that he brings to the table. It's all the small intangibles, the ones that don't appear on the stat sheets, that Roy has been best at utilizing to the benefit of his teammates. Despite his size, he's strong at winning puck battles. His speed and decision making allow him to both effectively protect of the puck as it's carried through the neutral zone, as well as know the right times to dish it off. On a team that's struggled so heavily defensively against the other team's attack, Roy has been one of the more consistent forwards when it comes to supporting on the back check. Looking at game recaps or highlights doesn't truly do justice to all the smart little things that he does right over the course of a game.
Roy is set to become a free agent this summer, and the motivation of playing for a big contract has to be factored in when evaluating his play. That being said, the Stars didn't acquire him as a rental, and their long-term approach to his shoulder injury and subsequent surgery confirmed that. Roy will have more than a few teams interested in his services should he hit the open market, especially considering how thin the crop of free agent centers is (seriously, look at this).
He has proven that he can be the perfect second fiddle to Benn. And if the Stars ever want to move Benn back to the wing, Roy has been a top line center in the past. He is ideally suited for a number two role, though, especially in the Western Conference, where the top center is battling against the Getzlafs and Thorntons of the world every single night.
The Stars boast the 14th best power play in the NHL at 17.7%. They were dead last in 2011-12 at 13.5%. And this improvement has been largely without Ray Whitney, who is still one of the best power play quarterbacks in the league. For the time being, Roy has been playing that role, and he has looked pretty good too.
Roy is in the prime of his career, and the Stars are a team that is still a year or two away from putting together a truly formidable roster. However, it is important that young players develop and learn in a winning environment (or at least an environment with a focus on winning). Look at how things remain stagnant in Edmonton, even with all of that young talent. Having Roy around for a few more years eases the pressure on the young centers (like Eakin and 2012 1st round pick Radek Faksa).
It is a similar situation to Erik Cole. Cole is in the prime of his career (or past it), but it is important that Dallas has veterans who are able to play and produce in important roles. Say Matt Fraser comes in next fall and earns a top six spot, bumping Cole down to the third line. That would be fantastic. But with Cole around, Dallas doesn't necessarilyneed a young guy to step up. Relying on young talent is never a good thing - positive development is rarely linear.
Is Roy's performance through the first part of 2013 enough to earn a new contract? Probably not, but it is a huge step in the right direction.