Vernon Fiddler has never worried about doing things the easy way.
We've talked before about how the Dallas Stars have a nice recent history of discovering undrafted free agents who might be viable NHL players one day. Some of those players, like Brenden Dillon, are classic late bloomers. Others, like Ryan Garbutt, simply scratched and clawed their way to the NHL.
Fiddler is another of those scratch-and-claw players. Discovered and developed by the Nashville Predators, Fiddler worked his way up from the ECHL to become consistent 25-point player in the NHL. A speedy center with a knack for faceoffs and possessing enough hockey sense to be trusted in shorthanded and defensive situations, Fiddler signed a three-year contract with the Stars back before the 2011-12 campaign.
Now entering the final year of that deal with a $1.8-million cap hit, Fiddler is facing a crowded depth chart at the center position. Even with the likely move of Jamie Benn back to the wing, the Stars traded for three new players who play center in Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverley and Shawn Horcoff, and the team is also obviously invested in the development of Cody Eakin at that position as well.
Some of this will be resolved by natural centers playing on wing, which has been tossed about for Peverley the most but is also a possibility with Horcoff and Eakin. Even so, given the depth above him, Fiddler's likely slotted for a fourth-line role to open the season.
That fits with his overall performance last season. Despite a brief resurgence late in the year when used in a more offensive role, Fiddler's lines generally struggled to produce scoring chances at the same rate as their opponents. Some of that was due to matchups - Fiddler and his linemates were generally used against other team's second lines or other offensive threats while the Stars tried to fight fire with fire while using Jamie Benn and his line against their opponent's top units. The Stars are likely to change some of their matchups up this year trying to get Benn's line away from such tough competition, but even in a third or fourth line slot, Fiddler's still likely to be used in a more defensive-oriented role.
As Mike Heika discusses in his own player profile series, the writing is probably on the wall for Fiddler in terms of his tenure in Dallas. There's not only depth above him on the Stars - there's also a crop of youngsters working their way up the system.
Alex Chiasson, who will almost certainly start the season in Dallas as a wing, played some center in the AHL, and Scott Glennie finally looks ready to make a push for the NHL lower lines. Radek Faksa probably won't be ready this year but could make a push in 2014-15. Even if you assume Horcoff moves on and Peverley plays mostly wing, that doesn't leave much room for Fiddler in the Stars' long-term plans.
For this year, though, Fiddler is the ideal combination of lower-line depth with the potential to play up if there are injuries and a veteran locker room presence. He produced at a decent clip when he and Eric Nystrom played bigger minutes after the Derek Roy trade, and he is a natural fit on a third-line if and when injuries strike.
But like a few other of the lower-line players, Fiddler's biggest contribution may be his work ethic and how that sets an example for his teammates to follow. As Heika puts it:
Even last season, when all plans were to reduce his role on the team, Fiddler pushed hard to not allow that to happen. Glen Gulutzan said at the time that Fiddler was not about to simply step aside and let someone else take his job - and that’s what made him great.
Even with the writing on the wall with regards to his long-term future, Fiddler will scratch and claw for every second of ice time he can this season. That, in turn, should push players like Eakin and Glennie into matching his work ethic on and off the ice as they compete with him for playing time.
With as many young players like Eakin and Glennie (and Chiasson and Nichushkin) as the Stars may feature on the forward lines this season, a little cagey veteran competition can only be a positive thing.