Projecting Ryan Garbutt’s possible impact on the 2014-15 Dallas Stars is a frustrating, most likely futile exercise. The crucial word, here, is Impact. The thing about a player like Garbutt is that he’s going to have one. He shows up every night, no matter what. The other thing about a guy like Garbutt is that his impact isn’t always going to be positive.
Let’s start with the good, and as a thought exercise, examine the previous five Stanley Cup Champions. It’s easy to look at those rosters and see high-end skill, a strong defensive corps, and multiple scoring lines. Beyond that, and significant in our discussion of Mr. Garbutt, is that those champions also had a couple of notable a-holes.
Los Angeles’ two entries included the likes of Mike Richards, Dwight King, and Captain Smirk himself, Dustin Brown. Boston leaned on Brad Marchand, Shawn Thornton, and Daniel Paille. Chicago got memorable contributions from David Bolland, Andrew Shaw, and Ben Eager. Yes, lists are fun, but several of those names should pop out. No team will ever have 12 Jonathan Toews. Championship teams are often defined by their complimentary pieces as much as by their stars, and the players listed above all played meaningful minutes in important situations.
I think that Ryan Garbutt can be one of those guys. On the ice, he melds plus speed, fearless aggression, physicality and a deceptive scoring touch. It’s a combination of attributes that keeps him in the lineup against all types of opponents, kind of like a Swiss Army Knife. Garbutt can skate with the north/south bunch, disrupt the cycle-heavy squads, and muck it up if things get too physical. He can also score, which is so very critical given his checking line role. If you can get the puck, keep the puck, and generate offense against a team’s top line, it’s going to be difficult for that line to beat you.
Last year’s stats give further reason for optimism. Garbutt averaged 13:04 a night across 75 games played, which suggests he’s durable despite his robust style, and has the confidence of the coaching staff. An offensive output of 17 goals and 15 assists further supports the notion he can be effective defensively while providing depth scoring.
If we dig further, he drove positive possession (51.3% Corsi / 52.8% Fenwick) despite starting 55.9% of his shifts in the defensive zone. Yes, advanced stats can be icky, but they build a narrative any Stars fan should love. Ryan Garbutt was undeniably a valuable, positive force across the balance of the last season. And by the way, Dallas will continue to enjoy all of this for a cap hit of $1.8 million. Excellent business.
But I mentioned negatives, so I guess we should get to those. Ryan Garbutt is 28 years old, entering into his fourth NHL season. To date, he’s played exactly 131 regular season games. That’s a pretty small sample size. Furthermore, the first 56 games in that sample (the 2011 and 2012 seasons) did little to suggest last year was coming.
Prior to last season, the offense I just finished celebrating was nonexistent (3 points in 2011, 10 points in 2012). There’s also a troubling spike in his shooting percentage (from 5.1% to 10.3%) to consider. This may well be a case of a player growing into an expanded role in the lineup (his average time on ice also jumped from 8 minutes to 13 minutes during this window), or we might have just witnessed an outlier. It will be interesting to see how his role changes if he starts slowly, or goes into an extended slump. Dallas doesn’t need Garbutt’s offense to be successful, but 17 more goals would sure ease pressure elsewhere in the lineup.
We must also consider the way he plays. On any other team, Garbutt would be infuriating. He’s our pest, sure, but he chirps, he dives, and he takes dumb penalties. The most egregious of those penalties came during the first period of Game 5 last season, and hints at a larger problem: Ryan Garbutt is not Corey Perry (or Jamie Benn for that matter). Yes, Corey Perry is a scumbag, but he’s an MVP-caliber scumbag. That matters. Ryan Garbutt is going to have to learn to conduct himself differently without losing the edge that makes him so valuable to the team.
Next season, Garbutt isn’t going to enjoy the benefit of the doubt. He is also unlikely to produce enough offensively to offset disciplinary problems. That means he’ll have to play smarter to stay in the lineup, which is where Dallas needs him. In many ways, Ryan Garbutt will have to overcome as an individual the same hurdle the Stars face as a team: success is easy when nobody expects much, but much harder to maintain under bright lights. Personally, I think he figures it out, but even if he doesn’t, it’s going to be one heck of a ride.