While center Mike Modano grabbed much of the early-season spotlight, jumping out to such a good start while scoring at just about a point-per-game pace, his less-heralded rookie linemate remained comfortably in the background.
Skating on the right side of a line that includes Modano and fellow rookie James Neal has been the rugged B.J. Crombeen and his physical play has contributed a lot to the trio’s early success.
The 38-year-old Modano can’t help but feel a bit invigorated lining up next to the two rookies and his inspired play has reflected that.
“Those young guys rub off on me,” Modano said of his linemates. “Sometimes youth can energize us old guys. They’re great guys, too, they have great respect for the game and the organization. It makes you want to do things for them.”
“It made Mo look younger, didn’t it?” Tippett asked, regarding the combination. “They play with so much passion, so much energy just to be in the league, and it can’t help but rub off on guys.”
While Neal’s emergence as an NHL player this year was somewhat expected, Crombeen’s presence on the Stars’ opening night roster was not quite as anticipated. After suiting up for eight regular season games - and earning two assists - in two different stints with the big club last year, and getting in another five during the playoffs, the gritty Crombeen was just one of a handful of hopefuls battling for the final spots on the depth chart in training camp.
But the 6-foot-2, 212-pound Crombeen enjoyed an impressive pre-season, leading the club in scoring with two goals and four points, and adding several fights into the mix as well. With a spirited performance in all facets of the game, Crombeen convinced Stars management that he deserved to stay.
“B.J.’s been solid, he’s a guy that goes up and down,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said. “He came to camp as a player that we knew had a chance to make our team, but he’s a guy that pushed his way in. There was probably some challengers for that spot and he stepped up above all of them.”
“He opened up a lot of eyes in pre-season, had some good fights and put some points on the board,” added center Toby Petersen
, who also played with Crombeen in the minors at AHL Iowa last season. “That’s going to open up some eyes and make everyone in management think twice before they decide what they’re going to with you. It’s good for him and obviously, we’re thrilled to have him here, because he’s a guy that you love to play with, but I think a lot guys don’t necessarily like playing against. He can mix it up with his physical play and mix it up with his fists, too, so he’s a good guy to have around.”
Crombeen, 23, is wise enough to understand that even though he’s in the NHL now, he can’t rest on his laurels - he has to keep performing at a high level or he might not stick around.
“There’s lots of good hockey players up here and everyone wants to play in the NHL,” Crombeen pointed out, “so it’s a long task and it’s not something where you get here and you’ve made it for good. It’s a never-ending road, so it’s something you continue to work on. I just came into camp, I knew it wasn’t up to me. I just had to come out and try to play my hardest and play my best and see what happened.”
While the Stars knew Crombeen was a physical player who will drop the gloves when necessary, as evidenced by his 39 penalty minutes in eight games last year, not to mention the 158 penalty minutes he accumulated in 65 AHL contests in Iowa (along with 14 goals and 28 points), it was the added dimension of offense that perhaps clinched him a job with the big club.
“I don’t think my game is really going to be trying to be a goal-scorer or anything, but I got a couple of lucky bounces on a couple of my goals,” said the humble Crombeen, downplaying his pre-season numbers. “I try to play a game where I throw the puck to the net and get there and take some whacks at it and stuff like that. I got a few that went in and hopefully get some more here in the regular season.
So far, through eight games, Crombeen, the Stars’ second round selection (54th overall) in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, was still looking for his first NHL goal, but had picked up three assists, while maintaining a +1 plus/minus rating. The fact he accomplished that averaging just 9:15 of ice time per game was even more impressive.
“He knows that for him to be effective, he’s going to have to go to those tough areas and use his size and use his strength there,” Petersen said. “He’s so hard to knock off the puck. He’s an intelligent player, he’s so easy to play with, because he’s just up and down the wing, there’s not a whole lot of fancy plays when he has the puck. He’s going to beat you with his strength and it makes it easy for the other guys that are on the ice with him. It’s been fun to watch him.”
Of course, Crombeen hasn’t abandoned his physical game either, ranking second on the club with 19 penalty minutes, as his fight Wednesday against New Jersey’s Bryce Salvador marking his third fighting major of the year.
“I think that’s a bit more my game, I try to play physically, in your face, and stand up for teammates and that kind of thing,” said Crombeen, sporting a fading shiner. “I’m going to have some bumps and bruises through the year, that’s going to happen, but I think that’s more my game. Play physical, get in the other team’s face, try to stand up for my teammates and just play a hard, honest game.”
“He’s a guy that will do whatever it takes for a team to be successful,” Tippett said. “He can play five minutes or needs to help a teammate out with a scrap, he does whatever it takes. Those guys are valuable players on your team. They work hard all the time, they’re committed to winning and they’ll do whatever it takes - low minutes, high minutes, whatever you need them to do, they’ll do.”
Overall, Crombeen has been happy with his progression and now, like the good team player he is, happens to be more concerned with the Stars’ recent difficulties and turning it around.
“I think it’s been going pretty good,” he noted. “I’m starting to feel more and more comfortable with each game. I think it helped getting those games in last year, getting some experience, knowing what to expect coming into this year. I think a big thing is knowing what to expect every night and being able to prepare for it and trying to come out and play my game every night. Obviously, our team’s got some things we’re trying to work on and work out, and hopefully we can get back on track here and start winning some games.”