The 31-year-old center, who spent the last two seasons in Phoenix after toiling for parts of the previous six in Nashville, may not be the most recognizable name to casual Stars fans, but he is well-known in the Dallas dressing room as a gritty, hard-working, defensive-minded player who excels on the penalty kill.
“He’s a guy that really is a meat-and-potatoes guy that is a player that you win with,” said Dallas General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk, who inked Fiddler to a three-year deal worth $5.4 million ($1.8 million per season). “That’s really what we’ve tried to do here. We’ve tried to add guys that we feel add to the culture and the character of what we’re trying to do and I think Vernon Fiddler
exemplifies that. He’s been a well-liked teammate wherever he’s been, he’s a versatile player, he’s a great face-off guy and a tremendous penalty killer. He’s just a warrior in that bottom group of players that you win with.”
Fiddler fits in perfectly with the Stars’ stated mantra of wanting to be tougher to play against, because the 6-foot, 202-pound Edmonton native scraped and clawed for each of the six goals and 22 points he earned in 71 games last season.
He acknowledged that coming to a team that emphasized that identity appealed to him, and that was a key factor in luring him, his wife and two children (aged 4 and 1) to Dallas.
“They’re always a competitive team, obviously playing against them lots in Nashville and Phoenix in the same division,” said Fiddler of the Stars. “They’re always hard to play against and more my style of play than some other teams, and I’ve just always been intrigued by the city - it seems like it’s such a great city, with lots of tradition in Texas. That’s a big part of it for my family and we were really excited when we found out we could have an opportunity in Dallas. Now that I made the choice, it’s obvious, I know I made the right decision and I’m looking forward to winning some hockey games.”
Last season skating for former Stars coach Dave Tippett, Fiddler registered a +3 plus/minus rating while averaging a career-high 15:32 of ice time per contest. As Nieuwendyk alluded to, Fiddler has developed into a beast in the face-off dot, winning 53.9 percent of his draws last season, second on the Coyotes and 24th overall in the NHL, topping every Star other than Steve Ott
’s 56.6 percent.
The year before, his 52.4 percent figure was good for 25th in the league, and in 2008-09, his 54.1 percent rating would have ranked 14th if he’d taken enough draws to qualify for the NHL’s final listing.
Ott acknowledged how much he respects Fiddler’s skills on the draw and expressed excitement at having him as a teammate now.
“I think he’s a great face-off guy, he’s an extremely hard-working, competitive player,” Ott said. “We’ve battled on a lot of face-offs and in a lot of different situations and he’s extremely responsible on the ice. You add all those elements, where you’re bringing in a great player like him and it just makes us so much stronger throughout our lineup.”
As a primary penalty killer, Fiddler ranked second on the Coyotes among forwards in short-handed ice time, averaging 2:53 per game last year and 3:05 the season before. His presence should help boost the Stars’ PK unit, which struggled in 2010-11, finishing 23rd in the NHL with an 80.1 percent kill rate.
“It’s important,” said Fiddler, who was never drafted and played parts of five seasons in the minors before finally sticking as a full-time NHLer, of his PK duties. “I play penalty kill and special teams, and if I can take some minutes off of the top-end guys that were killing them last year, there’s a few guys here that can pick it up, including myself. We’ve got to take on those minutes and keep those guys fresh because those are the guys that will get you big goals when you need them and get you the leads in games. The penalty kill is very important and I’ve always taken pride in being a part of penalty killing groups and I’m looking forward to being a part of this one too.”
“I think it’s a great addition to the team,” added physical Stars winger Krys Barch. “You look at our PK last year, it was not very good and that’s what one of his top attributes is, he’s a great penalty kill guy. And I know he was playing under Tip, so he makes sure he’s always defense first and he prided himself on having good PK teams. Vernon and Tip probably walk the same line in terms of how to play the game and you can see a lot of those things that he’s bringing here. I think it’s great. He seems like a great guy, he’s got a couple of kids and a family, I think he’s settling in for a nice season.”
Just listening to the respect that some of his former opponents afford him, it is clear that guys like Ott and Barch are relieved they don’t have to face him any more and are happy to have him in their dressing room. For Fiddler, the feeling is mutual.
“It’s part of the business. You walk in and everyone shakes your hand, says hi, and you just kind of put that water under the bridge,” said Fiddler regarding any physical battles he may have had with Stars players in the past. “Everybody plays hard. There’s guys on the team, like Barchie and Ott, all their players have always been tough to play against. Playing in the division last year, you knew every night you play Dallas, it’s going to be a tough game, because you got guys in your face and stuff like that. I’m looking forward to playing with them and not against them again.
“It’s been great. They’ve treated me very good so far and all the guys have been great, welcoming me into the group, and that always makes the transition a lot easier.”
With career-high offensive totals of 11 goals and 32 points, achieved in 2007-08 with Nashville, don’t expect to see Fiddler’s name on the scoresheet all that often. But most of his contributions are hard to quantify with statistics, falling into the foot-soldier category, as a depth player that may not get a whole lot of press, but is a crucial support player that every winning team needs.
The bottom line is, he does help make the Stars tougher to play against.
“I think that’s a lot of the identity in here, hard-working guys who come to the rink and work hard every night,” said Fiddler, who recorded five goals and eight points in 22 playoffs games as he helped AHL Milwaukee win the 2004 Calder Cup championship. “And if you do that, be a team that’s hard to play against, teams aren’t going to want to come in here and play us and that’s going to give us more of an advantage.”