Michael Russo had an interesting post a few days ago, about what it takes to survive in the NHL.
The post was about defenseman Justin Falk, a Minnesota Wild call-up who stood around while some Canucks were physically abusing his teammates.
The next day, Falk was returned to the minors.
Russo mused about what it takes to earn a regular NHL gig, basically coming around to players needing to do what they do best, in the best manner they can. He illustrated this with a cool story:
Years ago, I think 1999, I was in Hull, Quebec, at Florida’s rookie/training camp.
I was chatting with Ryan Johnson. He was probably 22 or 23 at the time and he thought he had the skill to be a big scorer in the league.
He relayed this story to me that one day Bryan Murray came up to him and told him, “Ah, dude, we have Pavel Bure. You’re not going to be a big scorer in this league.”
I’m paraphrasing here and if you knew BM the GM, you’d know it was a little more aggressive than that with probably a couple swear words mixed in. Murray’s message: “You better figure out what’ll keep you here, and that’s being a hard-nosed checking center. Focus on defense, grit,” in other words.
More than a decade later, Ryan Johnson is still in the NHL for Chicago.
He’s a good penalty killer, a courageous shot blocker. And you know what? He hasn’t even scored 50 goals in this league.
But he survived because he figured out the asset that he could bring, that would distinguish himself from others, and trust me, he brought it.
I was thinking about this story Saturday, watching Chris Drury work the heck out of his fourth-line winger assignment. Drury’s disappointing tenure as a Ranger can be chalked up to his trying to be a different player than he really is. He’s spent most of his time as a Ranger trying to play up to his contract by re-imagining himself as some kind of top-line pure goal-scorer. And that’s not who Drury is.
Saturday, with the Rangers’ season on the line, and no one expecting much out of him, Drury just played his game. He was tenacious, refusing to surrender the puck, and just kept trying to get the puck on goal. It was simple and ugly and it helped his team win their most important game of the season.
Steve Downie is another great example of a player who has a strong sense of what his strengths are. His NHL career was sputtering as he struggled to hold onto a fourth line role. But he kept playing a hard-edged game and now plays on a line with Steven Stamkos in Tampa, where his job is basically to create space for Stamkos.
Downie did what he does best, but by playing with Stamkos, his game has actually evolved. There’s more finesse and more speed than he ever got to show in Philadelphia. But he got the opportunity by working hard and working consistently.
Hopefully, Falk will figure out a work ethic that will complement his game. I would suggest he start with standing up for teammates when they’re getting run. But he shouldn’t worry too much if he’s not sure what his game is. Chris Drury lost his for quite a while, but seems to have found it just in time to save the Rangers’ season.
At least for one game, anyway.