By Jeff Capellini
Cal Clutterbuck is quietly becoming a Mr. Islander of sorts.READ MORE: Viral Video Shows Unmasked NYPD Officer Pushing Masked Commuter Out Of Subway Station
Now while that may seem like a blasphemous statement considering Bobby Nystrom basically took the moniker by force back in the early 1980s, Clutterbuck has in many ways become that type of player — gritty, fearless and clutch.
And the Islanders are a decidedly better team when he’s out there doing what he does best, which is often anything his team needs.
Clutterbuck has become a jack of many trades. He has always been ornery and has excelled as an agitator, but his game has developed so much he’s now as trusted a two-way player as the Islanders employ. He provides the type of priceless intangibles that winning teams need and clearly has the makeup of someone who can be a real difference-maker come the playoffs.
He skates around with a chip on his shoulder.
He’s a leader.
And he tends to play the hero.
Not bad for a guy who wasn’t initially embraced by everyone when he joined the club back in July 2013. The trade that sent highly touted Nino Niederreiter to Minnesota for Clutterbuck and a third-round pick was viewed more as general manager Garth Snow getting rid of a problem and getting fleeced in the process.
Well, let’s fast-forward to present day. While it’s true Niederreiter, at all of 23, is a top-six forward for the Wild, he is by no means the scoring sensation so many had him pegged to one day become when the Isles selected him No. 5 overall in the 2010 draft.
In fact, Niederreiter’s 14 goals this season are exactly two more than Clutterbuck has, and the latter has never been known as someone who fills the stat sheet.
A lot has been made of the Islanders’ fourth line, which comes in numerical order in name only. The trio of Clutterbuck, Casey Cizikas and Matt Martin seems to always be on the ice, regardless of the situation. Normally, a fourth line gets a handful of shifts per night, causes a ruckus and then goes back to relative anonymity.
Not on the Islanders.
Maybe it’s because the Isles really don’t have a true top line, a problem that’s been prevalent for as long as John Tavares has been around, that there is this all-hands-on-deck mentality. For years there has been a revolving door of wings playing alongside one of the NHL’s elite centers. As a result, the Islanders have been forced to scrap the idea of traditional roles by line. They really don’t have a checking line, and the fourth line is expected to do a lot more than simply provide intimidation.READ MORE: Hip-Hop Improv Show 'Freestyle Love Supreme' Returns To Broadway
On this team, it seems everyone does a little bit of everything. It’s how the Islanders survive.
Though they lack that go-to sniper to take the pressure off of Tavares, the Isles compensate by rolling four lines of capable skaters, guys who can score and ratchet up the physical intensity when necessary. That combination makes for real problems for opponents later in games, as evidenced by the fact that Jack Capuano’s team has a plus-19 goals differential in the third period, behind only mighty Washington league-wide.
Clutterbuck, who has one year left on the four-year, $11 million deal he signed with the Islanders back in 2013, has been the embodiment of this all-for-one, one-for-all approach. Of the players on his line, he’s the one that can be bumped up in a pinch because his skill set is beyond that of a traditional bottom-six forward. While not a scorer per se, his offensive awareness, better than average skating and accurate wrist shot make him a much more difficult player to deal with than many would assume.
Take the Islanders’ 6-4 win over the Rangers on Sunday night for example. With the score tied and less than two minutes to play in the third period, Clutterbuck found himself biding his time to the left of the faceoff dot in the Rangers’ end. Cizikas won the draw back, Clutterbuck eased over, gathered the puck and in one motion fired as wicked a wrister as you’ll ever see. The upper 90 crank overpowered Rangers goalie Antti Raanta and the Isles were on their way to their sixth win on their seven-game road trip.
“The road trip was so long and you go through so many stages,” Clutterbuck said. “This win right now was the biggest one.”
The Islanders improved to 3-0-0 against the Rangers this season and closed to within three points of the second-place Blueshirts in the Metropolitan Division. Clutterbuck said while everyone wants to see an Islanders-Rangers playoff series, which would be the case if the season ended today, his team has more important things to worry about.
“As far as we’re concerned, we have 19 games between now and any potential playoff matchup. That’s our focus,” he said.
The goal was Clutterbuck’s 31st as an Islander. Of those, eight have been game-winners, including three this season.
Clutterbuck has also scored twice shorthanded this season and four of his goals have come in the third period, the time of games the Islanders seem to own.
And though Clutterbuck is viewed more as a rough-and-tumble type that hits everything, the 5-foot-10, 215-pounder has just 14 penalty minutes this season and not one fighting major. A minus player throughout his first seven seasons, Clutterbuck is currently plus-8, tied with Thomas Hickey for third on the team. So to say his game has evolved is putting it mildly.
The Islanders seem to get more interesting with each passing day. They have greatly improved in their own end and have goaltending that can change games. What we don’t know is whether they will score enough. It’s one thing to have a top-10 offense in the regular season, which the Isles currently boast. It’s another to have a playoff offense, as this team found out the hard way last spring.
What is apparent is Clutterbuck is morphing into exactly the type of player the Isles will need come the postseason, when space disappears and more of a lunch pail mentality is required.MORE NEWS: Eligible New Jersey Residents Urged To Get COVID Booster Shot
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet