Inevitably, injuries on sports teams lead to open roster spots which, in turn, lead to opportunities for other players.
Patrick Dwyer has taken his opportunity and run with it.
With hip surgery possibly sidelining Tuomo Ruutu for the remainder of the regular season, a top-six forward slot became vacant.
Head coach Kirk Muller has tried a few different options alongside Jordan Staal and (mainly) Jeff Skinner, with Zac Dalpe, Chad LaRose and Dwyer.
Dwyer, who has swiftly worked his way up the depth chart this season, is the one that has stuck.
“He has an opportunity to play with Jordan and those guys here, and he’s reliable and dependable,” Muller said. “He’s taking advantage of the opportunities. He’s capitalizing, and he’s scoring. He’s been arguably our most consistent player so far this year.”
Muller, initially searching for a winger who could be a defensive safety valve of sorts for Staal and Skinner, plugged in Dwyer on the right wing. It’s a role the 29-year-old is familiar with, as he spent the majority of the 2011-12 season playing on the Canes’ shutdown line with Brandon Sutter.
As it turns out, he’s also had a chance to flex his offensive muscle, recording two goals and an assist since his second-line promotion on Feb. 4. With four goals already this season, he’s halfway to his career-best of eight, set in 2010-11.
“Those guys make plays,” he said. “With Staal’s size and Skinner’s skill, it opens up a lot of ice for me to make plays and to be able to do things I’d like to do regularly.”
His ice time has also surged, hovering around 17 minutes per game. He logged a season-high 19:04 against New Jersey on Feb. 12.
It hasn’t been an easy road, by any means, for the Spokane, Wash., native, who, after four years at Western Michigan Univeristy, cut his teeth in the AHL for six seasons. But Dwyer, a fourth-round draft choice of the Atlanta Thrashers in 2002, has made the most of his time with the Hurricanes.
In his first full season with Carolina, he posted career highs in games played (80), goals (8), assists (10) and points (18). He saw his average ice time per game jump nearly three minutes in 2011-12 (from 12:34 to 15:22), as he cemented his role as a reliable defensive forward with a deceptive bit of speed.
“Last year, first and foremost, it was go out there against their top line and don’t get scored on,” Dwyer said. “If you keep their top line off the scoreboard, then we did our job. Points were extra bonuses at that point.”
He assumed his role would remain the same this season, but injuries beget opportunities.
“I’m trying to do what I do on any line,” Dwyer said. “When you look up and the play’s there, that’s the time to make it. When you look up and there’s any doubt in your mind, you just have to make the smart play – get it deep or cycle it back down and let the plays come to you. You’ll see the plays when they’re there.”
The team’s structure is also different this season. Instead of having a designated shutdown line, the top two lines are often matched up against the other team’s top six. Dwyer still finds himself playing against the league’s best, though he admits getting the benefit of mismatches is a nice perk.
“Now, playing with these guys, not only can we not get scored on, but we have to put a few in the net. That’s where it’s nice having Skinny and Staal because they’re pretty good at that,” Dwyer said with a smile. “This year, we’ve got four lines that can play, and we’re running them. There’s not necessarily that direct match-up that we’ve had in the past.”
Dwyer credits playing with Team USA in the World Championship last summer in boosting his on-ice confidence coming into this season. In eight tournament games, Dwyer posted a goal (a wraparound scored against Cam Ward) and two assists as a first-time Team USA member.
“I think a big step with Patty was overseas last year in the World Championship,” said Muller, who was an assistant coach for Team Canada. “Not putting words in his mouth, but I think that was a big confidence builder for him. He was playing against elite players, and he had a great tournament.”
“Being selected to play for your country is a huge honor, and there’s confidence in that. You get on that big ice against the best players in the world, and you learn that the Olympic ice actually allows you more time to make plays,” Dwyer said. “You come back to the smaller sheet, and you know where the play is and how to make it. It forces you to develop skills you wouldn’t necessarily use as much over here, so that’s helped a lot.”
Dwyer has seamlessly ridden that international high into this season. And he’s getting rewarded for it.
“I came in this year feeling good about the way things are going,” he said. “I’m confident right now.”