His acquisition went overlooked by most observers leading up to the Feb. 27 trade deadline, lost in the flurry of moves made across the league and even the two major deals completed by the Dallas Stars that netted impact players Ladislav Nagy and Mattias Norstrom. But now that defenseman Nolan Baumgartner has gotten a chance to display his skills for Stars fans, there's no questioning his value to the club.Claimed off waivers from Philadelphia on Feb. 24, Baumgartner skated in just two of his first 14 games with the Stars, sitting as a healthy scratch in the others. But with the club sustaining several injuries along the blue line in a short period of time recently, Baumgartner has been called upon to step in and play some important minutes, and he has fit in nicely.
Suiting up for the last five contests, in which Dallas fashioned a 4-1-0 record, the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Baumgartner earned two assists and registered a +1 plus/minus rating while averaging 13:37 of ice time per outing.
On top of all that, the right-shooting Baumgartner has been playing left defense instead of his usual right, and despite having little experience on the other side, has adapted quite smoothly.
"Baumer's been very good," Stars coach Dave Tippett said. "We've put him in a position where he's playing his off-side, where he hasn't played a lot in his career. He's got in there and he's battled hard. He's got a couple of points, so he's been fine."
"I've felt pretty good," Baumgartner said, assessing his recent performance. "I think my first game that I played here I was a little nervous coming into a new situation, but we have to get over that quick. All the guys have helped me throughout that time since then, and I've been in the last five games now, and I've adjusted well, I think."
Interestingly enough, for most of the past five games, Baumgartner has paired up with Jon Klemm on the blue line. Klemm, of course, is the Stars veteran who, as the club's seventh defenseman all season, has also been a healthy scratch frequently this season. Klemm was impressed with Baumgartner's ease of transition to his off-side.
"He's been an easy guy to play with," Klemm said. "Obviously, he's not playing his side of the ice, so that sometimes takes some time to adjust, but he's done a great job with it." The two 'extra' defensemen are somewhat of an unlikely duo skating together, but they have meshed well together and have definitely contributed to the Stars' recent success, allowing the club to continue winning games without injuries playing a factor.
"He simplifies the game, he's a lot like I am," Klemm said of his new D partner. "Obviously, he's got a little more offensive ability than I do, he takes a little more chances that way, and he moves the puck very well. He's been very easy to play with, and for the most part, we've made the game pretty easy. We don't try to do too much out there, we just try to get the puck up to the forwards as quickly as possible."
While Klemm has endured a somewhat difficult season adjusting to his new role as the depth defenseman, Baumgartner, who recently celebrated his 31st birthday, is fairly familiar with it. An 11-year veteran of professional hockey who was a first-round draft pick (10th overall) of Washington in 1994, Baumgartner has toiled the majority of his career in the minor leagues, with several NHL stints sprinkled in.
Up until last season, Baumgartner had played a total of 48 NHL games for Washington, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Vancouver. Then last year, he secured a permanent roster spot with the Canucks and spent the entire season in Vancouver, maximizing his smooth-skating skills in the new NHL. He led Canucks defensemen with 34 points and tied for the team lead with a +11 plus/minus rating.
As an unrestricted free agent last summer, Baumgartner signed with the Flyers (reuniting him with his old junior coach from Kamloops, former Stars coach Ken Hitchcock) with hopes of continuing his evolution as a dependable NHL defenseman. Unfortunately, to put it mildly, things in Philadelphia did not go well. The club got off to a poor start, Hitchcock was fired, and after just six games with the Flyers, Baumgartner found himself in the AHL, although he didn't have to go far because the Flyers' top minor league club also plays in Philly. In 51 AHL games, he registered six goals and 26 points, but overall, the experience was a major disappointment.
"I signed a two-year deal there, bought a house and everything," Baumgartner said. "I really thought I was going to try to establish myself as a full-time player, but you know, stuff happens, and you have to deal with it as best you can. I'm going to play hard wherever I am. I went down to the minors, worked hard there, had a great time. I enjoyed working with the young guys, trying to make them better professionals on and off the ice. And now, I find myself in this situation, which is great and unbelievable at the same time." While caught off guard by the move to Dallas, it didn't take long for Baumgartner to warm up to his new situation.
"I was surprised, and then after that, I was excited," he said of his reaction to the deal. "I was in the minors, I wasn't in the league, and we weren't going to make the playoffs, so now I'm here in the NHL and we're going to have the chance to go for the Stanley Cup, which is a dream of mine, and the dream of everybody else in here. That's what we're all shooting for."
Being slotted as an extra defenseman who only gets in the lineup when players ahead of him on the depth chart get hurt may not be the most desirable of scenarios, but for Baumgartner, it is a step up from where he was. And since he is familiar with the role, the daunting task of sitting for long stretches and then having to jump into the lineup and play at a high level is something he has gotten used to over the years.
"I've been in that situation before," Baumgartner said. "It's my 11th year pro, I've been there before, I know what you have to do to prepare when you're not in the lineup. You have to watch the games and really stay mentally sharp. Practices, you've got to do a little extra. You really have to stay game-ready as much as you can through practices, and they do a great job, the coaching staff always has stuff for us to do out there that really keeps you sharp for when those situations do happen when guys go down, you're ready to go in."
That has been what Klemm has done all season, and he and Baumgartner both recognize their common situation and its importance to the team.
"Once we get healthy, chances are, we'll be the odd men out," said Klemm, who won Stanley Cups in 1996 and 2001 with Colorado. "But that's the way it's been, that's been my role, and I think bringing in Baumer has been a depth thing for him. And both of us have to come to the rink every day and practice hard. In a long playoff run, you just never know when you're going to have the chance to get in there, and both of us have to be ready."
Baumgartner has been impressed with the grace and dignity that Klemm has displayed in handling with his role change on the club. And although he's only played in three NHL playoff games in his career, Baumgartner knows that Klemm is right -- teams that go deep into the post-season tend to suffer injuries and need everyone to contribute at some point. "With a veteran like that, it's been tough, but he's a professional, that's what we do," Baumgartner said of Klemm. "We know we have a role to play on this team and if we don't play that to best of our ability, that's not going to help us win the Stanley Cup, so we have to do that, we have to really be mentally prepared to go in."
Tippett knows that the Stars are fortunate to have such solid and experienced defenders as Klemm and Baumgartner as the seventh and eighth D-men, because it is a luxury few teams can boast.
"He's a very good character guy, well-liked in the dressing room," Tippett said of Baumgartner. "And when he comes in, you know he's capable of getting the job done, and if you do run into injuries, he's a very valuable guy to have within the organization."