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Season Expectations: Antoine Roussel and Patrick Eaves

To beard, or not to beard, that is the question:

Whether tis nobler in the game to suffer

The slings and arrows of Frenglish chirping,

Or to take Arms against the sea of broken bones,

And by opposing end them.

In a turnaround that couldn’t have been imagined by Dallas Stars fans a mere five years ago, the Stars now boast an embarrassment of riches throughout their forward lineup. This is most evident at the top of the proverbial batting order, where there are at least four “first-line” quality players in Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza and Patrick Sharp along with emerging talents like Valeri Nichushkin and Mattias Janmark just to make things interesting.

But the bottom half of the lineup is just as deep, if not more so, in players who can chip in a little offense while adding other unique skillsets. Nowhere is that more apparent than with players like Antoine Roussel and Patrick Eaves.

An undrafted free agent signed out of the Chicago Blackhawks system, Roussel has emerged as one of the premier and most effective agitators in the modern NHL. While he can and does fight, his reputation is more because of his relentless energy. He possesses the speed and skating style of someone like Seguin but channels it into a ferocious forecheck and energy-laden puck pursuit.

Beyond what Roussel brings to the franchise off the ice – remember, this is the player who informed the world of Charles the diabetic cat last season – he has become a huge part of their lower line identity on it. He is chaos in motion with enough offense to be dangerous and enough speed to back off a defense. While he couldn’t rekindle the chemistry with Cody Eakin for most of last season, he found home with the Czech late and in the playoffs, his pursuit complimented by Ales Hemsky’s creativity and Radek Faksa’s hockey sense.

Roussel is a difficult player to set expectations for precisely because so much of what he does isn’t necessarily quantifiable. Yes, his 13 goals and 29 points are pretty reasonable production benchmark to look for, and yes, his role on the penalty kill will likely be expanded because of the loss of players like Vernon Fiddler and Colton Sceviour, but the way Roussel will always be judged is by how efficiently he disrupts in a more difficult-to-measure sense.

He “wins” when players like Duncan Keith, Joe Thornton or Ryan Suter spend more time thinking about how to turn him into French silk pie than their job within a game. He “wins” when an entire road arena is busy booing him, giving him energy rather than saving that reaction and support for their team. And he “loses” when he crosses the line from energetic into manic, turning a forecheck into overpursuit or irritainment into 20 minutes of penalties.

Whether Roussel is at his best or at his worst, he is never quiet about it, a loud player with a loud game. The same can’t be said for Patrick Eaves, who is always surprisingly successful without a lot of fanfare from his own fans or opponents.

Part of the reason Eaves, who is back with the Stars on a one-year deal, flies so quietly is his role as Mr. Fix-It. He bounces around the lineup to whatever group needs a little bit of a boost from a net-front presence or a quietly responsible backchecker. He can and does jump onto the first power play unit, but only when people are hurt or slumping. He doesn’t have a particular role in the lineup – his strength is that he is equally effective at almost any role you can give him.

But of course, there is the question of durability. Because he plays such a heavy game at the front of the net, Eaves is constantly taking pucks to areas with more or less protective padding. He also seems to have the type of bad luck you only read about in novels – last season, a flu that went through most of the team turned into pneumonia for Eaves and knocked him out of the lineup for several weeks. If there’s a bad break, figuratively or literally, he always seems to catch it.

There is always the question of what more he could have done if he would have only stayed healthy – 11 goals and 6 assists doesn’t seem very high, but it scales up to 17 goals and 9 assists for a bargain-priced 26-point season over a full 82 games. Those 17 goals would have been fifth on the team behind the four “first-line” forwards mentioned above. And five power play goals, even just that 54 game frame, is nothing to sneeze at.

With yet another crowded forward lineup, Eaves seems set to reprise his role as an every night, every role player. His health is, as always, a looming question mark, but he seems to make any line or special teams unit he is on better. And for a player who costs a mere $1 million in cap hit, that’s a huge accomplishment.

Talking Points