The path of a player to the NHL is always an interesting one to trace, especially when that journey is far from the conventional one.
Most that end up making it to the best league in hockey typically came through the ranks of the Canadian juniors or the US development system or from one of the top leagues in Europe, and almost all of them were "discovered" at the age of 17 or 18, selected into the NHL Entry Draft and immediately placed into that team's prospect system.
Even those players selected in the later rounds find themselves the benefit of privilege, and while most at the top were certainly deserving, it could be said that the latter half of the draft is nothing but a crapshoot of a lottery with no guarantee of any future success. Some take their selection for granted, some never really live up to their expected potential and some never really recover from the unfortunate nature of not getting selected in the draft.
Others, like Antoine Roussel, forge their own path to the NHL.
If you walk around the American Airlines Center and randomly stop any fan clad in victory green to ask them who their favorite current player will be, you'll certainly receive a multitude of answers. The big names, Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, are the unquestionable superstars on the roster. Kari Lehtonen has gained a fairly sizable following, and most times it is his name that gets the biggest roar from the crowd when starting lineups are announced.
Yet one can almost guarantee the name that will come up the most these days is that of Roussel, the foul-mouthed spitfire of a player who has taken this franchise by storm since being named to the roster following the lockout in 2013.
Signed as a free agent to a two-way contract in 2012, most of the attention regarding the news that day was over Toby Petersen and his expected role with the Stars. Roussel's name was merely an afterthought, a player who had failed to catch on in the NHL and who had garnered a reputation as a penalty-minute machine with the Chicago Wolves with nary an offensive instinct in site.
In fact, the signing prompted this bit of genius from some writer who shall remain unnamed.
"...and Roussel will be lucky to see more than 4th line minutes in Austin."
What we didn't know at the time is that the Stars scouting department and Les Jackson saw something more in Roussel than just a profanity-spewing and undersized pugilist. They saw speed and tenacity and an element they felt would be missing from the team the next summer -- Steve Ott was traded just a few hours after Roussel's contract was announced.
Many of us expected Roussel as nothing more than AHL depth, but the Stars had full plans for him to be at their NHL training camp that fall and even had penciled him onto the roster for that season. The NHL lockout delayed those plans, however, and Roussel flourished in Cedar Park with eight goals and 19 points in just 43 games while maintaining that reckless reputation that made him so damn fun to watch on the ice.
When the 2013 season began, Roussel was named to the training camp roster, and given the shortened nature of the lead up to the season, no one could really understand why. Roussel was recalled from the AHL just a short time after the season began in a swap with Reilly Smith, and he certainly made an impact in just his first NHL game -- scoring a nifty breakaway goal just ten minutes into the game.
Roussel would bounce down to the AHL and back, a move that was apparently made to send the message to curb some of the idiotic penalties he was taking, and he finished the season a staple on the third and fourth lines while showcasing the potential to be something more than the reputation that preceded him.
Born in 1989 in Roubaix, France, Roussel is just one of a handful of players from his home country to stake their claim in the NHL. Showing some flashes of skill in the QMJHL, Roussel never really could find that perfect balance between his tenacious and grating style of hockey and the production that is usually needed for someone to be considered at higher levels of play.
Yet Roussel is a fighter, both on the ice and off. He's regarded as the hardest-working player on the team; the first on the ice and the last off and has gained the complete support of teammates, coaches and management. That work ethic is what has allowed him to get this far and more importantly, that work ethic and dedication to his team is what has allowed Roussel to earn a bigger role on the Dallas Stars and become much more than the problem child he was when he first blasted onto the NHL scene.
One of the most interesting aspects of that French television feature on Roussel was hearing Lindy Ruff talk about trying to curtail some of Roussel's bad habits and to take advantage of the skill and tenacity that was lying under the surface. He's always going to be a penalty machine -- he rocketed past the 200 PIM mark in the final game of the season -- but he's also earned a spot on the second line, finds himself playing a major role on the penalty kill and is trusted to be put on the ice against the top competition and when the game is on the line.
It's tough to describe the style of play that Roussel embodies, and perhaps that's a big reason for his success in this expanded role. He's a freight train of gloves and sticks and legs and can dish out big hits just as easily as he takes them, but it is his unwavering energy and speed that has really brought Roussel to this point in his career. It's clear that Roussel has focused on rounding out the skill portion of his game and as he stated in that Canal+ documentary, his job is to put the puck in the net and stop the other team from scoring.
If he happens to bust a few faces along the way, then so be it.
Where Roussel shines, however, is his innate ability to get the blood boiling of any team or player he lines up against. This isn't a player that is concerned with who is getting paid what or what their "star status" might be; he's going to annoy the fire out anyone and everyone and do his best to get them off their game. He's also one of the more imaginative and colorful trash talkers I've ever seen (or heard) in the NHL -- including Steve Ott -- and there's a good reason why all of his fights are some of the more brutal and intense you'll see this season.
He just has a way of pissing off everyone he plays against.
He's unknown status around the league certainly isn't helping much, and it's doubtful that Roussel cares all that much about it. He hasn't "earned" the right to say what he's said or play his style, apparently, and already several players across the league have voiced their displeasure that he gets to breathe their precious NHL air.
He certainly walks a fine line when he's out on the ice and other than a nefarious run-in with the Carolina Hurricanes goalie in February, so far has been able to stay away from the controversial hits and dangerous plays that soiled Steve Ott's reputation during his time in Dallas.
The Stars have worked their best to find the right balance to his game and most importantly -- he's responded to the coaching and what the team wants out of him, and as the team is set to begin the first postseason series in five years Antoine Roussel is a stalwart on the second line.
Away from the ice, Roussel is perhaps one of the most gracious and humble professional athletes one could ever hope to meet. While fans certainly love his style of hockey, it's the way he interacts with them off the ice that has earned him the reputation as the ultimate fan-favorite. Genuine to a fault, everyone that has the chance to meet him walks away with a memorable and touching experience to tell their friends and family about -- I've heard plenty of such stories already.
Every postseason series and playoff run has their superstars but there will always a be a player who rises above the rest and surprises with their effectiveness when the pressure is at the highest. Those teams that find success in the playoffs are those who have such players step up when it's needed most, and while Roussel has just 14 goals this season, many of them have come when the team needed it the most. Game-tying goals and late goals to ice a game have become a bit of a specialty for Roussel -- on top of the effectiveness of his grating and speedy attack.
A seven-game series with the Anaheim Ducks awaits, and it's going to be one heck of a ride to see just what Roussel can accomplish when playing the same team for at the very least four games in a row. Ryan Garbutt says that Roussel is the most hated man in hockey right now and frankly, there's not any other team I'd rather he be playing for.