Sunday night, the Dallas Stars welcomed winger Ryan Garbutt back into their lineup. Garbutt was eligible after serving a three game suspension for slew-footing Winnipeg’s Dustin Byfuglien. It was his second suspension of the season, and one that seemed to leave fans, his coach, and the league’s disciplinary office in a state of frustration and anger. All the Stars had done in his absence was win (3 straight), which made Garbutt’s return an item of serious concern.
The good news is that, for one night, Garbutt wasn’t much of a story. The forward played 10:14, which bettered only Travis Morin’s 9:42. In that time he registered a pair of shots, no hits, and got scored on. Garbutt did see his usage decrease slightly in the later two periods (five shifts in each, as opposed to seven in the first), but there was nothing to suggest it was a benching. Rather, his decreased usage was most likely a combination of rust and the fact that Dallas’ calamitous second period left them in desperation mode offensively.
If we look at the season as a whole, Garbutt has played 24 games, put up an even five goals and five assists, and is currently a minus six. #Fancystats don’t love Garbutt (49.0 CF% / 49.3 FF%), but they also don’t call him out as a serious problem when we consider he starts nearly 57% of his shifts in the defensive zone. More telling of his role, Garbutt has 22 PIMs, and 33 hits. Across the board it’s just a touch short of what he did last season, but would still represent an important contribution.
Which is about where this article would end were we talking about anybody other than Ryan Garbutt.
In a perfect world he’d return to the lineup and resume contributing steadily, night after night, to a Stars team struggling to claw back from the fringes of playoff contention. Unfortunately, with Garbutt, things are never quite that simple.
For every Montreal, there’s a Winnipeg, or an Edmonton, or a Nashville. Garbutt plays not only with an edge, but also a Repeat Offender tag. The five games he’s missed account for more than 15% of the season, and you have to imagine he’ll need to adjust his style of play to ensure that number does not increase. Or he won’t adjust, which is sort of the problem.
At this point Garbutt is a kind of human "what if?" A time bomb, if you’re looking for a more inflammatory image. How long can he be left in the lineup, can he be counted on, before the next incident takes him away? He requires a contingency plan, which is fine when you’ve won a Hart Trophy (coughcoreyperrycough) or can score 60 goals (hackalexovechkinhack). Garbutt has 27 goals across his entire NHL career. Let’s be adults and acknowledge the possibility of diminishing returns.
In the immediate term, Dallas’ answer was to make room. The Stars shifted Curtis McKenzie down to Cedar Park, and truth told it was probably as much about McKenzie as it was about Garbutt. McKenzie has played admirably in a depth role for the big club, but you have to think the team hopes last season’s AHL Rookie of the Year can still learn to be just a little bit more. A larger role with the Baby Stars could help.
Things get tricky in the longer term. Travis Moen is inching his way back to health, and the club will eventually welcome back forwards Valeri Nichushkin and Patrick Eaves. Vernon Fiddler keeps drawing penalties and winning faceoffs. Travis Morin chips in a little bit each night… you get the point. It’s an unfortunate certainty that there will be other scratches, and other injuries, but it is equally clear that the Stars’ lineup is only going to get more crowded.
This next chapter in the Stars' season is going to be defined by the decisions Lindy Ruff makes on his lineup card. Do you take a chance that the games Garbutt actually plays will outweigh his warts, do you accept lesser contributions without the downside, or do you start to wonder how other forwards might look alongside Antoine Roussel? Shawn Horcoff has more points than Garbutt this season; Colton Sceviour seems to have escaped the offensive malaise that marked the start of his year.
I think the Pit Bulls are a thing of the past, at least in terms of being automatic write-ins on the nightly lineup card. The leash is going to be shorter. Games like the one he played against Montreal are tantalizing enough to keep Garbutt in the mix, but I think we’re going to see a higher variance in the minutes he gets. There might also be trips to the press box in his future, just in case the coaches start to sense another meltdown is on the way. Ryan Garbutt is now someone the Stars have to actively manage.
When camp broke, Ryan Garbutt was one third of the line Dallas was going to rely on to limit their opposition’s most dangerous weapons. Now, he’s just another puzzle piece bouncing around at the bottom of the lineup. There’s still plenty of time to rebuild the trust he’s lost, but Garbutt’s fall is a bitter disappointment for Stars fans.