Teemu Pulkkinen Belongs with Pavel Datsyuk and Tomas Tatar
Sample sizes are a tricky thing, as is translating points from one league to the next, but one thing looks clear, piano-movers aren't what they used to be.
It's been two years since Pavel Datsyuk brought us the term "Piano Mover" to describe the role of a grinder on his wing tasked with fighting the hard puck retrieval battles and going to the front of the net to cause chaos in the offensive zone. Interestingly enough, it was after a 3-goal victory over the Oilers that Datsyuk used the term, so it's as good a time as any to bring it back up.
Back in 2013, Datsyuk was talking about Justin Abdelkader, who had been on Datsyuk's wing for much of his career and had just snapped a 41-game goalless drought. These days we don't worry as much about Justin Abdelkader scoring, nor do we see him on Pavel Datsyuk's wing. That role has largely been taken by Darren Helm who, like Abdelkader, has set a new career high in goals scored this season. Helm has brought the piano with him up and down the ice with enough speed to give the opposition fits while also showcasing good puck control skills. As a result, Pavel Datsyuk and Tomas Tatar have been able to take advantage of opposition defenses.
Unfortunately, Helm has yet to play a game in March after suffering an oblique muscle injury against Nashville on February 28th. While he should be back fairly soon, Mike Babcock has been experimenting with Datsyuk's and Tatar's wing. In those four games, Datsyuk has five points, so he hasn't been slowed much by the loss of Helm, but it's important to note that only two of those points came at even-strength. Both were primary assists in the last two games.
One of those primary assists was to Teemu Pulkkinen.
I know we're talking about extremely small samples here. Tomas Jurco has been a possession star, but can't find his scoring touch and looked a bit awkward on a line with Datsyuk and Tatar, losing his spot in just two games' time. Luke Glendening has taken his place as essentially "Darren Helm Lite" over the last two games and has even scored a goal (Datsyuk's other even-strength primary assist). However, that goal was an absolute howler by Boston's backup goalie and if it had been allowed by a Red Wings netminder, we'd be booking him passage on the next rocketship to the sun.
Glendening's possession stats have been good alongside Datsyuk and Tatar these last two games, but the eye test suggests that has more to do with his linemates. Where Helm was able to spring the zone, receive passes and hold off the opposition until his linemates caught up, Glendening has lost pucks off his stick, got caught up making sure he wasn't leaving too early, and generally looked a bit lost in all the space he's been given lately. His work ethic certainly hasn't faltered in this role, but his instincts have been challenged.
I think that what we've learned recently is that there's more than one way to move a piano. Tatar still overhandles the puck a bit and Datsyuk still is only able to defeat two defenders along the board about 50% of the time, but the driving force behind how much space that line has to operate is those two forwards, who have a kind of synergy very reminiscent of when Datsyuk and Zetterberg were absolutely crushing teams' top lines back in 2007-08.
Or perhaps it's reminiscent of 2003-04, when Datsyuk and Zetterberg were making space for a right-hander with a wicked release who specialized in finding space for it?
While it's still hard to figure how much AHL success should translate to NHL scoring, it's hard to ignore the kind of numbers Teemu Pulkkinen has put up for the Griffins this season. Pulk currently has a 9-goal lead on the 2nd-highest goal-scorer in the AHL despite having played 11 fewer games. In his brief NHL time, he's already started putting up numbers like we'd expect to see. Despite having Stephen Weiss, Darren Helm, and Joakim Andersson as his three most-common linemates, Pulkkinen's shot rate translates to somewhere between 14-25 goals over the course of a season, depending on variances in his shooting percentage.
Outside of the numbers test, Pulkkinen has looked strong on the ice. He skates well, moves the puck up ice, uses the body well despite his size, and backchecks effectively. He's not exactly the complete package, but for somebody billed as fairly one-dimensional, Pulkkinen has already shown a well-rounded game, including a surprising physical element.
I think the old Babcock standard of having a playmaker, a sniper, and a grinder on each line still works, but specialization is is no substitute for skill. What the team would lose in Glendening's grinding on Datsyuk's line should be made up for by how well Datsyuk and Tatar battle along the boards and how quickly Pulkkinen can get his shot off from the rebound-rich net-front area. Teemu Pulkkinen is too good a goal scorer to go back to the AHL and he has too good a shot to not get used alongside two players most-capable of helping him utilize it.