We could argue for days over the specifics and particular qualities that designate an NHLer a role player, but for the purposes of this article I will provide my own definition and ask that you play along and not bicker about the variables. My definition is this: An NHL role player is a forward whose primary function for his team is anything other than providing offense.
A role player can be a defensive forward, an energy forward, sometimes even a power forward (and possibly even a defenseman), a grinder, a goon, a face-off specialist, an antagonist – the list is long. And although role players can, and often do, provide offense, the offense is usually a bonus. They’re not counted on to score.
More often than not, role players are the ones populating the bottom two lines of any given NHL team. You’ll find them occasionally on a top line, usually to complement a scoring duo with some grit. They’re the unsung heroes. They’re the players whom you’ll hear a team’s fans raving about, but you’ll find yourself knowing very little about them.
Of course, the matter of who is a role player and who is not, is largely gray. Benoit Pouliot, for instance, started the season as a speedy, energy forward, but finished the season unquestionably in a scoring role. Alex Killorn scores his share of points, but is depended on for his workman-like attitude in his own end as well. There is no clear cut line that players fall to either side of.
So I drew one. For the simple purpose of clarity, I split the Lightning forwards in half, put six on the top side, six on the bottom, named the top half “scorers” and the bottom half “role players.” I made a third list that I’ll call “the hopefuls,” which is where I slotted the Lightning players that played fewer than 20 games this past season (but more than 10), mostly because they spent time in Syracuse.
The lists wound up looking like this:
The Scorers/Top Six (listed numerically)
1. Vincent Lecavalier
2. Teddy Purcell
3. Alex Killorn
4. Martin St. Louis
5. Benoit Pouliot
6. Steven Stamkos
The Role Playes/Bottom Six
1. Tom Pyatt
2. Rayn Malone
3. BJ Crombeen
4. Dana Tyrell
5. Nate Thompson
6. Richard Panik
The Hopefuls/AHL Call Ups
1. Tyler Johnson
2. Ondrej Palay
3. PC Labrie
As you can see, it’s not an exact science. Which list Ryan Malone is better suited to, for instance, is debatable. The same can be said for a number of players, and the fact of the matter is very few, if any teams, are actually split evenly between role players and scorers. But splitting them up makes for tidy article-writing, so there you have it.
It’s important to keep in mind that I grade players based not on how well they played in comparison to each other, but on how well or poorly they met the expectations that the organization, and fans, had for them coming into the season. In some cases it’s an easy thing to dissect; in other cases not so much.
So let us now focus on those six players I have loosely dubbed “role players,” review their efforts from this past season, and grade them accordingly. Oh, the power that comes with judging professional athletes from the comfort of my armchair!
The Role Players
#11 Tom Pyatt
(GP) 43 (G)8 (A)8 (PTS)16 (+/-)+5 (PIM) 12 (ATOI)13:34
Tom Pyatt found himself the beneficiary/victim (depending on how you want to look at it) of constant shuffling through the Lightning lineup this year. Believe it or not, this was by far Pyatt’s best offensive season. Much of that can be attributed to some time in the early part of the season lining up alongside Vincent Lecavalier, and some of it can be attributed to some offensively gifted AHL call ups playing on the fourth line with him. Beyond those decent numbers (Pyatt is only 26, so the door is not yet closed on him emerging as a 20-goal-man one of these days), Pyatt’s main function is that of a penalty killer. And he’s serviceable in that role. Pyatt was, however, given to long stretches of invisibility this season. Part of that had to do with team injuries and subsequent line shuffling – Pyatt could easily find himself buried on the fourth line after an extended stay on the second due to a key player (Ryan Malone, for instance) returning to the lineup. His +5 rating is impressive, given how much Lightning forwards struggled to stay above 0.
Looking Forward: Pyatt is useful, but not exceptional, even as fourth liners go. He’s a piece that’s complementary, perhaps even a piece that’s complementary to complementary pieces. He provides some versatility because he has a bit more scoring touch than most fourth-liners. But as more and more AHL players force their way into the Lightning lineup, it’s only logical to assume that some of them are going to emerge as A or B-grade role players, and they could prove themselves to be an upgrade on Pyatt. And would anyone be surprised to see the Bolts search the trade market for depth? There are a number of scenarios that spell trouble for Pyatt’s roster spot, and he has some trade value.
#12 Ryan Malone
(GP) 24 (G)6 (A)2 (PTS)8 (+/-)-3 (PIM)22 (ATOI)15:44
2013 did not go well for Ryan Malone. In fact, it was downright ugly at times. He suffered from injuries, he suffered from illnesses, and even when he was in the lineup he never seemed to be himself. Was he a victim of the lockout layoff? Is age catching up with him early (Malone is 33)? Maybe he was just unlucky. Whatever the case, it got bad enough that coach Jon Cooper commented that Malone sometimes looked like he was asleep on the ice. (To be fair, Cooper also said there were times Malone was the team’s best player.) Malone is often overlooked as a key piece of this team, but he is. When he’s on his game, Malone provides a valuable physical presence, scores about 0.7 points per game, and is arguably the team’s best leader. That is not easy to replace. Unfortunately, Malone might not be capable of those things anymore. In April, Malone saw his icetime cut all the way down to 12 minutes per game. Not a good sign. And it could have played a larger part than we realize in the Lightning’s disappointing season.
Grade: F (Maybe that seems unfair, given the injuries. But Malone was not even close to what the Bolts needed him to be this year.)
Looking Forward: Speculation is beginning to swirl that the Lightning will buy out Malone’s contract in the off-season. And Malone’s performance, along with his worsening injury woes, are adding weight to the case. With a $4.5 million cap hit, moving Malone to another team is only slightly more likely than moving Vincent Lecavalier. His contract is shorter term however, ending in 2015, which makes him a much more likely candidate than Lecavalier to be bought out. (For those of you thinking Lecavalier will be bought out, how about you be the one that walks into Jeff Vinik’s office and asks him to cut THAT check.)
#19 BJ Crombeen
(GP)44 (G)1 (A)7 (PTS)8 (+/-)+4 (PIM)112 (ATOI)11:04
The case of BJ Crombeen is a curious and interesting one. He was brought in to be Tampa Bay’s chief enforcer, found himself undersized for the role, but somehow between trips to the penalty box and visits with the medical staff he revealed himself as a pretty good utility player. It started with Crombeen popping up for shifts on the penalty kill, and as time went on, he began having noticeably good shifts. It’s very telling that Crombeen, who scored just one goal this season, managed to be a +4. But even more telling is how Crombeen’s icetime increased from about nine minutes per game at the beginning of the season to over 12 minutes per game by season’s end (and this amidst the influx of impressive minor leaguers). He was rewarded with a contract extension at the end of the season, and it was well deserved. Crombeen is cheap for what he provides – a solid fourth line presence that plays tough, smart, often ugly, meat and potatoes hockey.
Looking Forward: Word has it that Crombeen is very popular with his teammates – that’s not a surprise, given how many punches in the face he took for them. If he ever scores 10 goals again, the Bolts will be lucky. But one thing is clear – he’s more than just an enforcer. He eats up solid, safe minutes (I point again to the +4), and gives opponents tough shifts. His style, while very basic, very unspectacular, is unique among Lightning forwards.
#42 Dana Tyrell
(GP)21 (G)1 (A)3 (PTS)4 (+/-)-3 (PIM)4 (ATOI)10:21
The name of Tyrell’s game is speed. He’s yet another undersized Lightning forward, and you can occasionally catch him blazing up and down the ice (when he’s in the lineup). Unfortunately, Tyrell’s game is limited to just that – speed. Speed, however, can be translated into energy, and once in a while this year, Tyrell would provide an inspiring shift. But the issue remains, Tyrell is not great defensively, and he’s probably never going to be a great scorer. He hasn’t established himself as more than a bonus offensive threat even at the AHL level.
Looking Forward: Again, Tyrell’s probably never going to be a major, or even minor, scoring force in the NHL. He does, however, have the tools to make himself useful. For one, he has the kind of speed that can win races and create battles out of nothing. If he can learn to win those battles (much like fellow undersizer and former teammate, Cory Conacher), he will be a valuable third and fourth line player. As of now, he’s an able body that can be inserted into the lineup and win races. It’s hard to imagine him making a career out of that alone.
#44 Nate Thompson
(GP)45 (G)7 (A)8 (PTS)15 (+/-)-2 (PIM)17 (ATOI)14:20
Unlikely as it seems, there were stretches of the season where Nate Thompson was Tampa Bay’s best player. Not only did he match last year’s offensive totals despite playing 23 fewer games, he was also just 10 points short of a career high. Of course, Thompson’s main function is that of a defensive forward. He took ownership of Tampa Bay’s third line this year, and his icetime was increasing steadily until he took a horrific slapshot to his visor near the end of the season. In a lot of ways, this season was a coming out party for Thompson, and he showed that he might be the exact type of player the Lightning have sadly too few of – a defense-first forward who plays a gritty game based more on will than skill. His -2 rating is deceptive – the majority of his minutes were against opponents’ best lines, starting with defensive zone faceoffs. He was rewarded with a new contract for his efforts, and now figures to be a fixture in the Lightning’s future.
Looking Forward: Thompson should return to third line and penalty killing duties next season. Certain penalty killers are likely to see that role reduced, with Jon Cooper seeming intent on turning Steven Stamkos into a penalty killer, but Thompson is not likely to be one of them. He should assume first unit duties and Stamkos will alternate in and out of the second unit. Beyond that, it’s beginning to look like Thompson can be counted on for bonus offense, which makes him newly valuable. While he’s still not quite an A-quality role player, he’s showing that he might evolve into one soon.
#71 Richard Panik
(GP)25 (G)5 (A) 4 (PTS)9 (+/-) -2 (PIM) 4 (ATOI)11:19
Richard Panik is one of several under-24 year-olds that found themselves in and out of the Lightning lineup throughout the year. And Panik, among others, showed flashes that he is ready for a full-time NHL role. Panik was used mostly as a depth player with the Lightning, but he was/is a prominent scorer in Syracuse (41 points in 51 AHL games this season, and named to the Eastern Conference’s All Star team). He earned icetime at points in the season where he wasn’t expected to play much.
Looking Forward: What Panik provided this season was small, but that’s not important. What’s important is there were hints of what he might provide in the future. The jury is still out on whether or not Panik will be coming a top six, scoring forward. But it seems clear that, at worst, Panik is going to be a skilled depth player that can provide solid offense on the lower lines. Like so many Tampa Bay players, the story is yet to be told.
In all of our gripes and complaints about defense with the Tampa Bay Lightning, something is often overlooked: Defense is not entirely the responsibility of defensemen. Forwards need to do their part as well, and in Tampa Bay’s case, I believe that’s been a large part of the issue.
Perhaps a major problem with the Tampa Bay Lightning is: while they have plenty of serviceable role players, they really lack that A-grade role player that can solidify a bottom 6. Tampa has B and C-grade role players, but they have no true shutdown artists. In other words: they have useful role players, but not exceptional ones.
The closest thing Tampa Bay has to that player, to their own version of Brandon Sutter or Steve Ott, is Nate Thompson. And as good as Thompson is, he’s still a notch below the league’s best bottom sixers. (And no, not all bottom sixers are simply players that can’t cut it in the top six – it doesn’t work that way. Great bottom sixers are players who bring skills to the table that don’t necessarily translate into goals, but are nonetheless very valuable.)
And because Tampa Bay doesn’t have a true difference maker in their bottom six (the jury’s out on Thompson), expectations are low for them. It’s hard to grade them harshly, because, for instance, it’s not like it would be reasonable to expect Tom Pyatt to morph into Kris Draper overnight.
That’s the bad news. The good news is Tampa Bay’s farm system is filled with players that will likely never be superstar scorers, but have an excellent shot at becoming very valuable third and fourth line guys. And, if you look at the Bolts roster of forwards, those are exactly the type of players they need. For instance, when all is said and done, when Brett Connolly and Tyler Johnson and Jonathan Drouin/Nate MacKinnon/Sasha Barkov are all regular NHL players, a 25 year-old Alex Killorn might well find himself anchoring the Tampa Bay Lightning third line. And the prospect of having that kind of speed, size, and hockey IQ in a third line role, makes Tampa’s future look very bright.
Tags: Tampa Bay Lightning