Was Dallas Stars Ryan Garbutt's Play a Regression Back to the Mean This Season?

Heading into the season, hopes were high for Ryan Garbutt. The combative winger had proven himself an invaluable asset during 2013/2014's exciting charge into the post season. Fast forward one year, and things look a little different. Who, exactly, is Ryan Garbutt, and what can Stars fans expect

Ryan Garbutt played 14:01 in a win against the Philadelphia Flyers on March 10th. In about 30 seconds more than his seasonal average, Garbutt registered three shots on goal, one hit, spent 1:28 on the penalty kill, and picked up a secondary assist on Vern Fiddler’s game-winning goal.

The combative winger did all of this without taking any penalties, his ninth game running with that distinction. All in all, it was a tidy night of work. It was also the start of a season-ending trend.

After the Philadelphia game, Ryan Garbutt took a little break. Garbutt would register a DNP for the next three games: Carolina, Washington, and St. Louis. Two of the three were wins (5-3 versus the ‘Canes, 4-2 against the Caps), the third a streak-busting whimper (3-0 against the Blues). The loss would get Garbutt back into the lineup, but only for a single game (a 2-1 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins). After that it was four more games in the press box.

Ryan Garbutt’s hiatus lasted seven games. During that stretch, the Stars would balance five wins against two losses, and push "mathematically alive for the playoffs" to its absolute breaking point. Given the important role Garbutt was expected to play heading into the season, it was odd to see him sit.

Of course, if we look at the way the season actually unfolded, his absence made a bit more sense. Jarring as it was to see the Stars battling for their playoff lives without Ryan Garbutt, it was also appropriate. Yet another missed opportunity in a season full of strange turns. We all know how the fight ended. What’s interesting is seeing the role Ryan Garbutt has played down the stretch for the Dallas Stars.

It’s now been six games since Garbutt’s full-time return to the lineup. The Stars are above .500 (4-2). Garbutt is picking up points (1 G, 2 A, 3 pts), but he’s been a weird version of himself. Subjective as the stat can be, Ryan Garbutt has only recorded four hits since his return. Those hits, furthermore, have been bunched together. In three games Garbutt has failed to be credited with any contact at all. Some of that might be attributed to an away team scorekeeper in Nashville, but both Calgary and St. Louis played in Dallas.

Shots on goal tell a similar tale. Eight shots in six games is a fine number on the surface, but once again, they’re stacked. Take away four shots against the Ducks, and Garbutt has struggled to get rubber on net. Zilch against Vancouver and St. Louis, a single effort against both the Sharks and Flames. The Stars scored 25 goals in those games, so it’s fair to infer shots weren’t an issue.

Looking deeper, Ryan Garbutt has exceeded his seasonal average in ice time exactly once since his return (16:33 against the Predators). He’s also on pace to finish substantially below last season’s encouraging offensive watermarks. Garbutt is nine goals and seven points behind last year’s pace. If we account for games played, he’s dropped from .43 points-per-game to .37 points-per-game. Not a huge gulf, I admit, but it’s troubling to see a dip, more troubling to see last season’s 10.3% shooting percentage nearly 5 full points higher than this season’s number (5.6%). Was last year an offensive outlier?

More than that, Garbutt is 59 hits, 23 shots on goal, and 51 PIMs behind last season’s totals. Those aren’t gaps he’s going to make up in the season finale. They’re also beyond what Garbutt would likely have accumulated had it not been for injury, suspension and discipline costing him 15 games. Keep in mind he played more this season, on average (13:03 versus 13:34), and even that number was higher a month ago.

Believe it or not, my goal here isn’t to bury Ryan Garbutt. His cap-hit this season was a paltry $1.8 million. That’s an easily digestible number for Dallas, or frankly, any other team in search of a little high-end grit. He’s not soaking up valuable minutes better-spent nurturing younger players, nor is he going to inhibit management in free agency. In plainer terms, the Stars aren’t losing Jamie Benn because they have to pay Ryan Garbutt.

Smarter people than I are going to have to spend this offseason measuring what he brings to the table versus what he takes away. What I can wonder, right now, is how deeply connected are the reductions we saw in hits, PIMs, and goals. Do we cite the hits and PIMs as telltales of a more tentative game, and therefore evidence of his eroding effectiveness? Or do we look at a player who exceeded his career high shooting percentage by nearly three full points last year and call it a day?

At the end of the day, do Stars fans go into the offseason dreaming about corners turned and the player we caught glimpses of last season, or is Ryan Garbutt a personification of the general expectations re-set this humbling campaign has forced upon us fans?