"'Helmer' changed our team last year when he came to us because we couldn't play our fourth line. When he arrived, suddenly we could get eight minutes a night out of our fourth line."
-- Detroit coach Mike Babcock
That would describe Darren Helm's role last season with the Red Wings; without Helm playing that role, Detroit's Stanley Cup run might not have been successful. If the Wings are to repeat as champion, they'll need a similar contribution this spring.
"'Helmer' changed our team last year when he came to us because we couldn't play our fourth line," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "When he arrived, suddenly we could get eight minutes a night out of our fourth line."
With contributions from all four forward lines, the Wings were emboldened to win their fourth Stanley Cup in 11 years.
"In 2008, inserting Darren Helm in the lineup gave Mike the confidence that he had four lines," Wings General Manager Ken Holland told NHL.com.
Earning that spot didn't come easily for Helm. He started last season with Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League and got a six-game call-up in March. He went scoreless, failed to impress Babcock, and was returned to the minors.
"We brought him up and he played (a few) games and he didn't win Mike's trust," Holland said. "Mike was nervous with him and we ended up sending him back to the American League. I went down to watch Grand Rapids play about eight or 10 times and I thought the experience of being in the NHL for three weeks, Darren Helm's confidence had grown and he was a better player."
Holland convinced Babcock to give Helm another shot, and he impressed Babcock enough in the final game of the regular season that the coach kept him with the big club during the playoffs.
"If he doesn't come back and play that last game, Mike doesn't put him in because Mike's memory was of the way he played in February," Holland said. "But by getting that little bit of experience, going back to the American League, he realized that in the American League he could do some things -- he handled the puck more, he beat people with his speed, and when he got back … he fast-tracked in a month."
That fast track landed him in the lineup starting with Game 5 of the Wings' first-round series against Nashville, and kept him there the rest of the way. He had 2 goals in 12 games while averaging 7:30 of ice time.
It's been a similar path for Helm this season. Again starting the season in the minors, he played well in a short call-up and is back centering the fourth line in the playoffs. Only this time the trust was there from the beginning, which is seen in his increase to 10:24 of ice time per game. In 13 games heading into Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals, he had two goals and a team-best 58 hits, including eight in Detroit's 3-2 overtime win Tuesday night.
"Last year I was a fourth-line guy, too," Helm told NHL.com. "It's just being hard on the forecheck, finishing my checks, creating energy. This year it's pretty much been the same. Been bumped around a couple times, played third line a few games, but I think this year the only difference is I'm playing a little bit more. … I'm playing a little bit more, and I'm trying to create a little more offense then just get it in and finish my check."
While he's listed at 5-foot-11 and 172 pounds -- Holland said it's more like 195 -- Helm's role is to provide a physical element.
"One of the guys that was important for us last year was Dallas Drake, and the ingredient he brought was physical presence, finishing checks, getting in on the forecheck, laying in some body checks, and we've missed that ingredient," Holland said. "Mike Babcock and I talked down the stretch and we thought that Darren Helm could bring that ingredient that Dallas Drake had provided last year.
"He provides energy and speed, (but) his biggest thing is physical play. Over a seven-game series you want to wear the other team out, so you need guys who can finish checks and he's one of the guys that finishes lots of checks."
After going through last year's title run, Helm said he's more prepared to play his role this year.
"I know what it takes, how important and how big winning and the Cup really is," Helm told NHL.com. "You always play to win, but after going through it you see how big it is and how really hard it is to make it to the Final and win the championship. I got a little bit of experience now, so I'm aware and I'm not as nervous going into every game. I'm a little bit more calm and know what to expect."
The Wings also know what to expect from him -- and just how important his role is.
"Whenever we've won, our strength has been to roll four lines," Holland said.
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org