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Doing a lot with a little

by Brad Holland / NHL.com
Success in sports doesn't always stem from talent, desire and drive, although one would be hard-pressed to find an even marginally successful athlete who didn't excel in most or all of those categories. But sometimes, more than talent and determination, all that matters is your position on the depth chart.

The minutes a player receives, and who he receives them with, are as important to a hockey player as the batting order is to a baseball player, and just as important to his production.

Each of those variables can drastically influence a players' ability to impact his team's games. Let's face it -- if you're a young Ducks defenseman trying to crack the top six, you may just have a little waiting to do.

But regardless of the hardship, there are those who find a way to thrive in a lesser role. Those players understand what is needed and play to their strengths; they make the most of what small opportunities are given them in the hopes that one day, when things open up, it'll be their number called instead of someone else's.

These types of role players are what make a championship team tick. They is the fourth-line "energy" guy who scores a big goal, or the fifth or sixth defenseman who plays like a top-pair superstar for one game when it counts.

They are the players who rarely get any credit -- until now.

This list represents the best of NHL.com's 2007-08 list of players from the Eastern Conference who did a lot with a little -- the skaters who, with 15 minutes of ice time or less per game for skaters and fewer than 20 starts for goaltenders, were able to make the biggest impact on their shift, their team, and the League as a whole.

Craig Anderson, Florida Panthers, Key stat: 2 shutouts -- After only six starts in the first half of the season and a record of 0-4-1, Anderson's fortunes turned completely in 2008. He skated to an 8-2 record in 11 appearances in the '08, finishing off his 2007-08 season with an 8-6-1 record, a 2.25 goals-against average and a sparkling .935 save percentage -- with two shutouts -- in only 17 starts.

Based on those impressive numbers, and the strong form he showcased in the stretch run, things could be looking up for Anderson in 2008-09. He may be called upon more to ease the burden of workhorse starting netminder Tomas Vokoun in 2008-09, as the Panthers push to return to the postseason for the first time since 2000.

Brandon Dubinsky, New York Rangers, Key stat: 40 points -- Dubinsky joined the Rangers with little guarantees as far as a job or ice time, but he ended up as one of only five Rangers to play in all 82 games last season. And for the bulk of those 82 games, he played on a line with one of the game's all-time greats in Jaromir Jagr. Dubinsky didn't show any sort of nervousness, making the most of promotion to what was arguably the Rangers' top line by putting up a very respectable 16 goals and 40 points, despite only about 14-plus minutes of ice time per game. He was even better in the playoffs, as he had 4 goals and 8 points in 10 postseason games.

Blessed with speed and hockey sense - not to mention a fair share of courage - Dubinsky also shows a willingness to shoot the puck (157 shots), a skill that generally takes young players a few seasons to learn. What's more, in his final 36 games Dubinsky had 10 goals, 26 points and a plus-13 rating.

He also showed he could defend himself and his teammates, evidenced by his 79 penalty minutes. Despite losing an All-World linemate, a full season of experience and confidence should translate into a breakout campaign for the one of brightest of Broadway's young stars.

Sergei Kostitsyn, Montreal Canadiens, Key stat: 27 points -- Kostitsyn joined the Canadiens midway through 2007-08, after posting point-per-game totals in the AHL, and helped form one of the Canadiens' most effective -- and surprising -- lines last season. Teamed with brother Andrei and veteran Alex Kovalev, Sergei Kostitsyn had 9 goals and 27 points in only 54 games, while playing just 14:21 per game.

In fact, the Kostitsyn brothers and Kovalev meshed so well the trio remained together through the 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs, combining for 27 points in 12 playoff games.

Sergei is an exceptionally smart hockey player who uses his speed and puck skills to create opportunities for himself and his linemates, a future top-line skater who knows how to play with other high-end talents. Kostitsyn has a history of playing on high-flying lines. In 2006-07, he teamed with Sam Gagner and Patrick Kane with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, and the threesome scored 394 points.

Brooks Laich, Washington Capitals,
Key stat: 21 goals -- Laich, a 2001 sixth-round pick of the Ottawa Senators, may not be the most well-known of the up-and-coming core of the Washington Capitals, but he was an integral part of their rags-to-riches 2007-08. Laich scored 21 goals while averaging 14:02 of ice time per game. He mostly skated in a third-line role, but earned some power-play time along the way (he scored 8 power-play goals). He finished third on the team in goals behind only the Alexes: Ovechkin's 65 and Semin's 26.

 
 
His breakout campaign took a further step during the 2008 postseason, as his ice time ballooned to 18:36 per game and Laich responded with increased production -- a goal and 6 points in 7 games, to go along with a plus-2 rating.

Judging on what he was able to muster with limited playing time, an expanded role for Laich in 2008-09 should equal a statistical bump in his career-best offensive numbers from a season ago.

Drew Stafford, Buffalo Sabres, Key stat: 5 game-winning goals -- The No. 13 pick of the 2004 Entry Draft, Stafford is another in a long line of homegrown Sabres prospects who was allowed to mature as a hockey player before being brought up to the big club, first for three seasons at the University of North Dakota, and then for a final bit of seasoning with the Rochester Americans in the American Hockey League.

Stafford split 2006-07 between the AHL and NHL, putting up 13 goals and 27 points in 41 NHL games. Much was expected from Stafford last season, and he responded with a 16-goal, 38-point campaign in 64 games.

With a full season of NHL duty under his belt, and a clean bill of health heading into 2008-09, Stafford could continue to make an impact in the League, especially if he can earn more than the 13:31 per game he received last season.

Contact Brad Holland at bholland@nhl.com.

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