The problem with being an unsung hero is that your whole schtick is going unheralded.
It’s not like sports fans don’t love the “most underrated player” debates - they do - but when a player’s primary goal is keeping the status quo, it’s difficult to stand out enough to be included in the conversation.
To that end, there may not be a position on NHL clubs talked about less than third-pairing defensemen. Saying they’re only striving to keep things the same might be over-simplifying things, but it’s hard to argue against the unheralded label. Go ahead, name the third-pairing d-men for the Nashville Predators last opponent (or the one before that). Fine, here’s one more: who’s the Calder Trophy winner on the Preds roster?
Did you immediately think Barret Jackman? I didn’t think so, but more on that in a bit.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that in a team game like hockey, all the cogs in the machine need to function together smoothly to produce the larger intended result. When that subtle change toward effectiveness happens, teams stop producing efforts where they’re left saying, “that’s how we want to play, it just didn’t go our way,” to quietly collecting points while the coaching staff and media point out the next big thing that needs to be worked on.
The Predators find themselves in that place right now. They’ve claimed points in eight of their last nine contests, and portions of the team’s game, such as their third defensive pairing of Jackman and Anthony Bitetto, are quietly humming along.
“I think we’re limiting a lot of turnovers, we’re playing a very sound game,” Jackman said. “A lot of times the stay-at-home defenseman doesn’t have the stats to draw on, plus-minus, for example, can be hit or miss on how you’re actually playing.
“It’s one of those things; you block shots, you get some thankless minutes, but you feel pretty good when you’re team is getting the job done.”
A veteran blueliner of 14 seasons, Jackman’s best work this season has probably come since Seth Jones was swapped for Ryan Johansen and the former St. Louis Blue has been slotted alongside rookie d-men in Anthony Bitetto or Petter Granberg. Jackman has naturally taken Bitetto under his wing since the duo were paired (again) on Feb. 4, the game before the Preds began to consistently acquire the aforementioned points.
“He doesn’t try to do too much when he’s on the ice, which is our role, we want to keep things simple and be a steady influence back there and be dependable,” Jackman said of playing with Bitetto. “I think he’s doing a really good job of recognizing plays before they happen, having good gap spacing, being strong. For myself, I have to make sure I give him the puck, especially with him being a lefty on the right side. It’s best to give him the puck when he has enough time to make a play and not trying to handcuff him and not let the opposition get on him too quick.”
Jackman mentions repeatedly that his role on the Preds third defensive pairing is to, “not do too much” or play “even.” File that away as one of the marks of an unsung hero we talked about earlier. To his credit, the 25-year-old Bitetto, who recently played his whopping 23rd game in the League, says the same thing.
“The biggest thing is as long as we don’t get scored against, we want to be plus players,” Bitetto said. “If we can contribute in that sense, I think it’s going to help the team. Our top-four defensemen are pretty excellent players, so to play behind them, it’s an easy mindset to approach the game in that way.”
That’s the beauty of the setup of the Predators defense. Offense, physicality and defensive prowess to spare from the bigger names of Shea Weber, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis; plus a bottom pairing that understands how they complement the minute munchers above them. Jackman’s veteran insight has also helped mature the NHL’s highest scoring d-corps with an average age of 25.5 (without his 34 years added in).
Striving to make his teammates better is the method of approaching the game instilled in Jackman back in his Calder Trophy-winning campaign of 2002-03, when he was paired alongside Hall-of-Famer Al MacInnis.
“Playing with a guy like Al MacInnis in your first year, he’s always a guy I looked up to and idolized, so then getting to play with him was very special. Just the way he handled himself off the ice, helped to shape me to be the player that I am,” Jackman said. “It was almost surreal. You come in and I was given the opportunity because Chris Pronger was injured, I had the opportunity to play a lot of minutes and play important minutes. I was playing bits of power play, penalty kill, playing against top lines and being the guy counted on to shut down teams at the end of games.”
Jackman says he hopes to pass along MacInnis’ example to the younger players he skates with, the object of that tutelage currently being Bitetto. The 34-year-old, along with Preds Assistant Coach Phil Housley, has also been able to help his partner, Bitetto, nine years his younger, in his transition from the left to the right side of the ice - a conversion that can affect the fundamentals of how a blueliner thinks about the game.
“It’s been nice for Housley to give me some pointers on how to position my feet. You take little pointers on the ice to keep in mind when the game is happening fast,” Bitetto said. “It’s special. He’s been one of the best American players in the world for a while. To have him on your side, is awesome. I think him being a lefty playing on the right side as a defenseman, it’s nice for me to be able to pick his brain and be a student of the game in that sense.”
It’s not easy to quantify Bitetto and Jackman’s improved contributions to the team - Corsi numbers are on opposite ends of the spectrum for two players in very different places in their careers, for example. The plus-minus Jackman says can’t always be relied on helps paint the picture somewhat: Jackman is a +1 since Feb. 6, while Bitetto is even. But trying to find statistics proving the pair’s worth, in a sense, goes against the whole purpose of the two defensemen’s team-first mantra. Rest assured that their head coach is noticing their progress, however. Their goaltenders are too.
“Both are really good players; that’s a solid third pairing,” netminder Pekka Rinne said. “[They help with ] big blocks, and with a great penalty kill. When guys see that on the bench, when they see guys sacrificing themselves and blocking shots, I think that is always something that is infectious. You feel like you have to do that the next shift and that really helps. It’s a huge motivating thing for a team.”
Motivating the whole team to be better, aiding the gears of the machine in turning smoother, sacrificing for the greater good, sounds like the work of unsung heroes to me. Just don’t talk about them too much, that’s how they prefer it.