“Baseball is a red-blooded sport for red-blooded men. It's no pink tea, and mollycoddles had better stay out. It's a struggle for supremacy, a survival of the fittest.”
-- Ty Cobb
What Ty Cobb said about baseball a century ago can be said for hockey today. While there is a privileged place at the table for the player of skill and imagination, there is also a place for the player who struggles and survives.
This explains how it is that a player with fewer than ten career points in more than 100 career games can have a place in the lineup for a National Hockey League team. It explains the Washington Capitals’ Aaron Volpatti.
Aaron Volpatti has played in parts of four NHL seasons, never appearing in more than half his team’s games in any of them. He appeared in precisely that many games – 41 of 82 – for the Capitals last season. It was arguably his best season in his still young career. In addition to setting his career high in games played, he set a career high in goals scored. OK, so two goals is a modest career best, but they all count, and you have to crawl before you can walk, let alone run.
What makes Volpatti’s presence in the league, not to mention his modest progress, more interesting is the fact that it was not as if he was a hot shot amateur who had to re-tool his game for the NHL. He had just 13 goals in 137 games over three seasons with the Vernon Vipers of the BCHL, followed by 32 goals in 123 games over four years at Brown University (17 of those goals coming in his senior season). After signing as a free agent with the Vancouver Canucks following his senior year at Brown, he played in 61 games over two seasons with the Manitoba Moose and scored just three goals. Nine amateur seasons, 321 games, 48 goals, more than a third of those in one season. He was not coming into the NHL as a sniper.
What he was, though, was a scrapper. There were 279 penalty minutes in 137 games with the Vipers, 236 penalty minutes in 123 games with Brown, then 91 penalty minutes in 61 games in the AHL. It didn't stop in Vancouver. In two-plus seasons with the Canucks, Volpatti managed only three goals in 54 games, but he had 81 penalty minutes, 55 of those minutes coming in 11 fights. This was a player who, when traded to the Caps in March 2013, took a fighting major on the fourth shift of his first game with the club. Volpatti was not, and almost certainly will not, make his living in the NHL be being an offensive threat. He has had to, and almost certainly will have to, scrap for every minute of ice time he gets.
The Caps were 22-12-7 in games in which Volpatti played last season, 16-18-7 in those he did not. In 2012-2013 the Caps were 12-3-2 in games in which he appeared after arriving in trade from Vancouver. A 34-15-9 record when he dresses? That’s a 48-21-13 pace per 82 games (109 points). Some things are hard to explain.
So, in your world the sun rises because the rooster crows? In those 58 games Volpatti had three points and was a minus-5 while averaging less than eight minutes of ice time.
The Big Question… Is there a roster spot in his future?
There could be something of a log jam on the fourth line for the Capitals, and Volpatti would appear to be in the mix for it. Jay Beagle, Chris Brown, Tim Kennedy, Michael Latta, Casey Wellman, and Volpatti. It could be quite a competition. On the other hand, no one stands out in any particular way. It presents an opportunity for Volpatti, since he and Kennedy are the left wingers by position in that mix.
But here is the steep climb Volpatti has. Over the last four seasons, only three forwards have appeared in as many or more games than Volpatti (112) and have as many or fewer points (7): John Scott (165 games/3 points), Colton Orr (149/7), and Volpatti. Even on a fourth line, the Caps need more production.
In the end…
The Caps are not awash in options at left wing on the fourth line, which might be the best thing that can be said about Aaron Volpatti’s chances of being in the opening night lineup. After four years and 100-plus games, it does not seem likely that he is going to provide much of a contribution other than a certain brand of feistiness. That sort of thing has its place to keep things honest on the ice, but even there, fourth liners do not generally get assignments that might pit them against higher lines on which there might be players who need to be reined in.
There is going to be a competition to see just who and in what combinations dresses for the Caps on the fourth line on a night-in, night-out basis. Volpatti will be in that mix, and not being a “mollycoddle” by any means, he will be battling for that spot.
Projection: 17 games, 1-1-2, -1