Crime & Punishment: Ryan Garbutt Post-Suspension

It's been a month since Ryan Garbutt made his latest return to the Dallas Stars. Has the twice-suspended winger learned his lesson, and more importantly, has that lesson changed the player he can be out on the ice?

I imagine a whiteboard, tucked away in Coach Lindy Ruff’s office, deep in the heart of Dallas Stars Central Command. On that whiteboard you’ll find a few plays, perhaps some line combinations, upcoming matchups, or maybe even a motivational quote. For the most part, it’s the exact same as what you’d see with any other team with one major exception. On that whiteboard, somewhere towards the bottom, is a simple, scribbled message:

"15 Games Since Last Incident"

Yes, I’m talking about Ryan Garbutt. As we head into the All Star Break, I think it’s appropriate to reflect on his eventful season. It’s especially good timing because the 15 games he’s played since his latest return very nearly matches the 18 games he played before his first league-enforced absence. Symmetry, plus I guess a relatively slow news cycle, brings me to one key question: "has anything really changed?"

You would think the answer would have to be yes. Given the struggles of his team to start the season, and his perceived value to the lineup, the idea that Garbutt would be forced to clean up his act (or at least alter it a little bit) seemed like a foregone conclusion. Otherwise, how would a player suspended for a total of 10 games since last spring (three for spearing Corey Perry, two for kneeing Taylor Hall, and three for slew-footing Dustin Byfuglien) have any hope of maintaining a significant presence in the lineup? However, the more I looked, the more I began to wonder.

Across the first 18 games of this season, Ryan Garbutt put up a basic stat line of three goals, five assists, for eight total points. Essentially, a 36-point pace projected across the entire year. That was good news for Stars fans, as it represented a continuation of last year’s performance (75 GP / 32 Pts).

Physically, Garbutt was very much engaged, racking up 22 hits in those 18 games. It also bears mentioning that, despite his broader disciplinary issues, Garbutt actually began the season as a relative Boy Scout. After averaging 1.41 PIMs-per-game during the 2013-2014 season, the burly winger started 2014 averaging just .67 PIMs-per-game. Message received, right?

Under the hood, Garbutt began the season as the valuable cog everyone expected. He handled an average of 13:56 tough minutes each night (36.2 OZS%). During those minutes he largely battled his opponents to a draw in terms of possession (43.5 CF%), and drew six penalties set against the five he took. That’s a good player, which explains why his suspensions were so painful.

I remember wondering, at the time, what kind of impact his repeated lapses would have on Lindy Ruff’s trust. "What if he does it again" is a very dangerous question. Then, Garbutt came back, and seemed to justify my fears. Only 10:14 in his first game back, against Edmonton no less. Next, a why-bother 9:37 against Toronto.

Was this the new Garbutt?

Ryan Garbutt scored his first post-suspension goal in his third game back, against the St. Louis Blues. He also played 15:29 that night. In other words, significant minutes against a significant opponent in a significant game.

It turns out I might have been wrong. We are now 15 games past the end of Garbutt’s most recent suspension, and things are, more-or-less, back to normal. It’s eerie, actually. Fifteen games played, two goals, four assists, and six points (aka a 33 point pace).

The hits are still there (21), and the PIMs still aren’t (8). Pick a stat (13:46 ATOI) and he’s the same guy. Ruff still trusts him (37.3 OZS%), and that trust is still mostly justified (45 CF%). If anything, Post-Suspension Garbutt is a little more of the good kind of dangerous (37 scoring chances in 15 games versus 27 scoring chances in 18 games), but that might be due to a general uptick in the team’s performance.

Admittedly, this doesn’t tell us the whole story. Garbutt could very well have altered aspects of his play beneath what even the most advanced of analytics can catch. Hits are subjective, Corsi is variable at such small sample sizes, and heck, Garbutt still needs to make it through three more games without a suspension to equal his season-high.

It is equally possible Garbutt hasn’t changed at all. Maybe this is just a case where Ruff and co. are maximizing the return on a volatile asset. So long as he contributes, they keep Garbutt in the lineup as long as they possibly can, and hope the positives outweigh the absences. There are worse things in the world than 18 good games followed by a five game break.

The situation is certainly one I’ll be watching down the stretch, and hockey-gods willing, into the playoffs. Will Ruff throttle Garbutt back once the playoff stretch begins in earnest? Will Garbutt snap first, and send himself back into the press box? Tension is only going to grow.

Ryan Garbutt really hasn’t answered any questions about trust. Not yet. He’s worked hard, made mistakes, and then worked hard all over again. That’s a strong positive for the Stars, but it’s a story that ends in an ellipse rather than an exclamation point. At least for now.