Colorado Avalanche defenseman Francois Beauchemin is one of the latter players, a guy that worked his tail off to get where he is today. The 36-year-old rear guard skated in his 800th career contest on Wednesday night, and even though the Avs fell 3-2, the milestone is something that is invaluable to him.
"It means a lot, having spent the first five years in the minors and then finally getting a chance to play in the NHL at the age of 25," Beauchemin said after the game. "I'm now 36, and getting that milestone is something I'm pretty proud of."
Video: Postgame interview with Francois Beauchemin
Selected in the third round (75th overall) by the Montreal Canadiens, his favorite club as a kid, Beauchemin began his professional hockey career in the year 2000 when he skated in 56 games with the Quebec Citadelles of the American Hockey League. The blueliner didn't even sniff the NHL until Feb. 27, 2003, when he skated in his first and only game for the Canadiens.
It wasn't until the start of the 2005-06 season, after being claimed off waivers by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2004, that Beauchemin got another chance to prove he belonged among the best players in the world.
His focus was on earning game No. 2. There was no thinking about reaching a milestone like 100 games, let alone 800.
"No. Never. I got that one game in…the NHL with the Canadiens and then I was sent right back down the next day," he recalled. "It wasn't easy, but I never quit. I kept working hard in the American League and finally some people saw the [right] things. They thought I could be an NHL player one day, and it paid off."
The Sorel, Quebec, native played just 11 games in Columbus before being traded to the Anaheim Ducks, the club he truly made his name with.
Beauchemin grew even more as a player while with the Ducks, learning from some of the best in the game. He also won the Stanley Cup in 2007, which was obviously one of the highlights of a career spent working for everything he's earned. It took mental fortitude to get where he is, but it also took the right opportunity.
"You have to take the chance that you get. For me, it came in Columbus, and then after that I got traded to Anaheim," Beauchemin said. "I got a chance to play with two of the best defensemen of all time in Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger, and I did learn a lot from those guys. I think that helped me [get] where I am right now."
A veteran in the locker room and out on the ice, Beauchemin is now tasked with serving as a mentor to the Avalanche's younger defensemen, guys like Tyson Barrie and Nikita Zadorov.
Beauchemin's immediate advice?
"Especially when you're at that age, try to make the simply plays and not try to do too much," he opined. "Sometimes it comes back against you. Especially as a young defensemen, you see a guy open, you move the puck and then you move your feet up the ice."
With Barrie (lower-body injury) and Erik Johnson (broken leg) currently out of the lineup, Zadorov is a player that has been given increased responsibilities as of late. Sometimes he's thrived, sometimes he hasn't.
Sometimes both things happen in the same game, like on Wednesday night.
"We put some heat on him for the big mistake. There's no question. We like a lot of things he's doing. He's showing growth in a lot of areas," head coach Jared Bednar said of the young Russian. "Some days he moves the puck better than others. He's played large stretches without the big mistake, but he has had a couple lately; that sort of tough bounce in Anaheim and the one tonight. It's playing a lot in circumstances that he wouldn't always play in, and we just lack the depth back there right now without EJ and Barrie. So you get games where we probably could ease him back a little bit, but it's tough to do at this point without those guys in the lineup."
Video: Coach Bednar's postgame news conference
Zadorov still has some learning to do, but he could learn worse lessons from other players. Beauchemin, of all people, knows what it takes to have success and to earn a spot and then keep that spot in the NHL. He's a veteran, and he leads by example.
That includes owning up to mistakes when he makes his own.
"That first goal, we lost the coverage in front, and then the second goal, Z lost the puck behind the net," Beauchemin said, walking through the difference in the game. "On the power-play goal, I was in front of the net worrying about the backdoor play, and the guy passed it to the guy next to me in front. It was a 50-50 puck, and I took the wrong angle there.
"We didn't quit. I thought we had some juice. We skated all night, we worked hard, threw a lot of pucks at the net, especially late in the game in the third. I thought in the second, not very much, but we found a way to get back. It's just unfortunate that we gave up that power-play goal at the end."
NIETO MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Matt Nieto joined the Avalanche on Jan. 5, skated in his first game on Jan. 6, scored his first goal of the season on Jan. 17 and has consistently earned himself a solid top-six role since the day he landed in Colorado.
He scored an enormous goal on Wednesday night, briefly tying the game against the Vancouver Canucks in the third period. His marker gave a tangible result to the Avalanche's comeback effort and looked to help the club to a come-from-behind victory that would have been extremely important in providing confidence to a fragile squad.
Alas, a power-play marker on a questionable call made the difference, and Vancouver skated away with the victory.
Video: Matt Nieto on loss to Canucks
"I thought he was great tonight. He was our best player tonight," Avs coach Jared Bednar said after the loss. "He was our best player. He was going to the net, he's skating hard, he's making plays. I think he had what, seven shots in all, and he's a big part of our penalty kill. I just think that he adds an element of speed to that line with [Matt] Duchene, and he can see the ice pretty well. He's been good."
Nieto said he was proud of the team's effort following the match.
"I thought the guys in this room, we competed hard. I thought we played hard for 60 minutes, you know. It's just a couple mistakes, they're in the back of our net. So pretty unfortunate," he said. "The only thing we can do is just go out there and compete, and I think we've been doing that. Haven't really gotten bounces in the third period, but it's going to come. We're working too hard for it not to."
Nieto has played almost exclusively alongside Duchene since his second game with the Avalanche, and it's a combination that he's certainly excited to be a part of.
"They're talented players. I'm lucky to be playing with those two, so I'm just trying to make the most of it," he said of his pairing with Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog. "Get in on pucks and try to put it in their hands. They're players that like to have the puck on their stick. When they have the puck, they're making plays, so it's fun playing with them."
His enthusiasm, energy and effort, although motivating, weren't enough to overcome a slashing minor called against Landeskog with less than half of the final frame remaining. And while the play certainly wasn't the only reason for Colorado's loss, it did play a role.
"That was the difference in the game. You take a penalty on a backcheck in the third period," Bednar said of the scenario. "You look at the goals we gave up; a turnover behind our own net, unforced basically and it ends up in the back of our net, and a power play in the third period. We should know better by know. Penalties in the third period are costing us, and that was no different. I didn't like the call. For me, if you see the slash, call the dive. That's what I see. That's what I think about it."
The larger issue at hand is that mistakes like that, decisions both with and without the puck, are costing the team victories, and more importantly at this point in the season, confidence.
"I'm going back to the last, now it's eight games," Bednar said. "Starting [after] the Islanders, we've come up empty a lot. We only have one point in the last seven games, and it's coming from behind on San Jose. It's making sure that we're not giving up on games because we tended to do that or implode a little bit sometimes in games in the first half, and we're making a conscious effort to not do that. I feel like we've been pretty good at not doing that.
"So I expected us to fight until the end and be in that hockey game. It's just a tough way to lose for me. I hate seeing our guys [do that]. It's a needless slash from our guys. There's no need to do it, but I still don't like the call."