It’s a fine line, and watching someone walk it can be truly maddening.
For the Dallas Stars, a couple of players fit the category of valuable agitators, but one in particular recently showed just how maddening (and gratifying) trying to walk that fine line of being an agitator can be. That person would be Ryan Garbutt.
In hockey, there is a fine line between being a goon with relatively no other skills besides fighting and being a valuable agitator. Agitators don’t usually fight as must as goons do, but a big part of their role is to get under an opponent’s skin without hurting your team in the process. Teammate and linemate Antoine Roussel struggled finding the right balance over the past two seasons, but he seems to have gotten a better grasp of it. Over just the last two games, Garbutt has shown the effects of playing on both sides of the line.
Garbutt was benched on Thursday for taking a penalty that resulted in a goal against. Tonight he draws one, leading to the first Stars goal.
— Josh Bogorad (@JoshBogorad) December 7, 2014
The Benefits and Drawbacks of Garbutt’s Play
Simply put, when Garbutt walks the right side of the line, he is very effective and can be a big part of the team’s success. That was clear Saturday night against the Montreal Canadiens when he notched an empty net goal, three shots and six hits in over 15 minutes of ice time. He drew four penalties on his own. The Stars scored on one of Garbutt’s drawn calls, but they came close on two of the others as they went on to win 4-1 and broke their four-game losing streak. Just one game earlier, on Thursday night at the Detroit Red Wings, he showed the drawbacks of being a player with an edge.
The Stars were down 2-1 with less than three minutes left in the first period when Garbutt took a penalty that altered the game. He followed up a shot on Jimmy Howard by driving hard to the net, but then he skated into Howard, elevated his stick and whacked the goaltender in the head. Garbutt was sent to the box for slashing, and the Red Wings scored on the ensuing power play. It was a completely unnecessary play after the puck had already been frozen. Lindy Ruff’s furious expression was evident as Garbutt skated back to the bench. Ruff didn’t say a word. He just stared him down in silence.
Garbutt was benched for most of the rest of the game, and the Stars lost 5-2. He got a little ice time later in the third, but he ended the game with a season-low 5:04 of ice time. Take into consideration that his usual linemates Cody Eakin and Roussel saw over 18 minutes and 12 minutes of ice time, respectively. The message from the coach was clear. Walk the right side of the line or you won’t play.
Garbutt scores on the empty net. What a turn around game for him. Very positive presence for the Stars tonight.
— Owen Newkirk (@OwenNewkirk) December 7, 2014
Behind Some Numbers
Garbutt is no stranger to a physical, gritty style of play. That is part of what won him a spot on the roster and an eventual three-year, $1.8 million contract extension in January. He and Roussel make up two-thirds of a tenacious, relentless and physically punishing line for the Stars over the last couple of seasons. He’s seen his share of trouble having been suspended twice, one as recently as November 25 for kneeing Taylor Hall, but when the trio is focused and plays the right way, there is no doubt they are key to Dallas’ success. They were leaned on heavily as Dallas’ second line last season and have been together for a good part of this season.
Garbutt is sixth on the team in hits this season with 31, and he has done so with at least four fewer games played than four of the five players he trails. He is second on the team in penalties drawn per game behind Vernon Fiddler. Since he broke into the NHL in the 2011-2012 season, he has thrown 287 hits and accumulated 178 penalty minutes in 153 games. Not only can he play the grinding role, but he also has the ability to produce. In those 153 games, he has tallied 27 goals and 55 points, and his ice time has grown each season. He averaged little over eight minutes in his rookie campaign, and he is averaging over 13 minutes so far this season. His speed has led to some highlight-reel goals, including the beauty in the video below against the Phoenix Coyotes earlier this season.
The last two games were perfect examples of Jekyll and Hyde moments resulting from Garbutt’s style of play. Luckily for the Stars, more often than not, Garbutt is able to find the right side of that balance, and the team could definitely use more of it to try to climb back into playoff contention.