You have to give the Dallas Stars credit - they have been extremely proficient at finding players who did not follow the traditional path to the NHL.
Brenden Dillon was passed over in the NHL draft several times but blossomed after signing a free agent contract with the Stars. Jordie Benn followed his younger brother to Texas and worked his way up from the Central Hockey League.
And then there's Ryan Garbutt, an Ivy League alum with degrees in economics and sociology from Brown who started his professional hockey career with the Corpus Christi IceRays, then a member of the CHL. He became the organization's first player to ever play in the NHL in February 2012 when he debuted against the Phoenix Coyotes.
Since joining the big club, Garbutt has filled in admirably on the lower lines, with five goals and eight assists in 56 career games. He had 10 points, including three goals, in 36 games last season while battling a hand injury from mid-March on. And he did that with a shooting percentage of 5.08 percent, well below his career 11 percent AHL shooting average. Given that, you might expect a little bit of an uptick in offensive output this season.
But there's still the big question of where Garbutt fits in to the bigger picture of the roster, especially when you look at the long term. Garbutt is 28 and in the second year of a two-year deal. The Stars have a bunch of talented young forwards they might want to see in a limited, fourth-line type of role this year, so where does that leave Garbutt?
What Garbutt has going for him is his work ethic, his ability to throw big hits (and chip in with the occasional fight when called upon) and his decent set of hands. While not necessarily full of veteran savvy with less than 100 games in the NHL, he's had to scratch and claw for every inch of his professional career, and coaches like to have that type of guy around.
Here's a few examples of Garbutt at his best.
On the scoring end:
Throwing a big hit:
And engaging in fisticuffs:
The intriguing question about Garbutt right now is he's never played a full, 82-game season in the NHL. I'm very interested to see how he settles into a regular roster spot, assuming he stays healthy, and if that has a positive effect on his overall game.
He already has good speed and very decent numbers for a lower-line player, and he was fairly effective and moving the play out of his own zone. While he started 40 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone last season, 47.8 percent of his shifts finished there. But in terms of competition faced, he saw typical fourth-line opponents.
I think the most telling line about Garbutt is this from his The Hockey News scouting report: "Doesn't know the meaning of the word 'quit'."
That is why, despite his lack of pedigree, lack of size and lack of "upside" when compared to some of the youngsters rising in the ranks, Garbutt will be a big part of the lower lines this season.
Coaches love players like Garbutt, guys who will work their tails off for 8-10 minutes a game and get every ounce out of their talent. They feel that rubs off on the more talented guys who might struggle to put in the same work rate every game. That's one of the main reasons a player like Eric Nystrom was so popular with both his teammates and coaches - you know the work ethic you'll get each and every night. And when that comes together, like it did for Nystrom in 2011-12, there's no player fans love more.
Does that mean Garbutt will break out with a 15+ goal season? He'll have to beat every odd in the book once again to do so. The most likely course for him is another solid year in Dallas as a fourth-line grinder, playing solid minutes with the likes of Vernon Fiddler and Antoine Roussel, then moving on to another organization next season in a similar role. The Stars have lots of interesting young kids coming up behind him, players like Curtis McKenzie, Scott Glennie and Matej Stransky, who will probably be the fourth-liners of choice in the near future.
But it's a little too soon to completely write him off as just another spare part. After all, he's exceeded every expectation placed in front of him this far.