Every team has "that guy".
You know the one: the guy that, for whatever reason, makes the team better. I'm not talking about the mega-skilled player like Pavel Datsyuk or Henrik Zetterberg. This doesn't count the starting goalie who clearly is important to a team's success.
The type of player I'm describing is one who, at first glance, wouldn't appear to be a crucial member of the team. He doesn't have the most talent, his stats aren't anything that would blow you away, and his pedigree prior to joining the team doesn't indicate that this guy would ever be anything more than a depth player.
Yet, there are certain players who, for one reason or another, just make a team look better. There may not be a ton of stats to back up your idea, but it's something you just can't shake. When that player is in the lineup, your spirits raise, your confidence soars, and you watch a game with more of a feeling that the team will win.
On the Red Wings, that player is Darren Helm. The speedy center became a fan favorite during the 2008 playoffs as a surprise addition to a Cup-winning team, and with each passing season he has endeared himself further to fans.
There are certain things we know about Helm. He's a ridiculously fast skater; he's a ferocious penalty killer; and he'll forever be known as the guy who scored the OT winner against Chicago that sent the Wings to the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals.
However, a look at his stats page looks like what you'd expect from a checking-line center: his career-best season offensively was 2010-11 when he scored 12 goals and added 20 assists. He's generally been a plus player in his career, and he doesn't take a lot of penalties. During his tenure as a full-time player, the Wings have never finished higher than 10th in overall PK%.
Does that sound like a guy who controls the fortunes of a hockey team? No, I didn't think so either. Perhaps there's something else going on.
Looking at some advanced stats, we start to get a better idea of how good Helm is. In the last 2 years, Helm has finished top-10 among all Wings who played more than 10 games in Corsi, and first in penalties drawn/60 minutes. Helm drives possession in a positive manner and creates more power plays for the Wings than any other player on the team.
That's a little better, but again, the Wings have always been a puck possession team so we'd expect most players to have positive Corsi ratings, and the Wings PP hasn't exactly set the world on fire the last 2 years.
In my opinion, the best way to judge a player's impact is to see what the team does when he is in and out of the lineup. In the past season plus the first 6 games this season, Helm has missed 19 regular season games and 5 playoff games (he was injured early in Game 1 of last year's series against Nashville and only had 3 minutes of ice time, so for our purposes we are considering him to have missed the entire game).
A player like Helm is there to play a checking role, so offensive numbers shouldn't be too affected by his presence in the lineup one way or the other. In the 24 games that Helm missed, the Wings scored 54 goals, good for 2.25 goals per game. In the 69 games that Helm was in the lineup, the Wings scored 206 goals, or 2.99 goals per game.
I was surprised by these numbers, so I turned to the defensive side to see what they looked like. In the 24 games Helm was out of the lineup, the Wings gave up an average of 2.75 goals per game. In the 69 games he was in the lineup? 2.38 goals against per game. The penalty kill was relatively unaffected, with it clicking at around 82% with him both in and out of the lineup over the last 2 years.
The final litmus test? Record. Without Helm in the lineup over the last 2 years Including playoffs), the Wings are 9-12-3. That's a 72-point pace over the course of a full 82 game season.
I'm no math genius, but something tells me that when a player's absence means that his team scores less goals for, gives up more goals against and loses more games than it wins, it's imperative that he be in the lineup. Helm has gone through a few injuries in the last year, and many people thought that his absence was hurting the Wings, but no one to what extent. It's hard to imagine many third-line players having that big an impact on a team's performance game-to-game. Let's hope that Helm's back heals up and he can get back on the ice so the team can get back to winning.