September 18, 2008
I put pen to paper on some NHL predictions yesterday for the first time this season, comfortably predicting that the Carolina Hurricanes would finish second in the Southeast Division and make the Stanley Cup playoff cut. Then came word that forward Justin Williams had torn his right Achilles tendon in an off-ice workout, and could miss six months.
So I did what any pundit does when new crap comes to light: I rolled up my predictions and smoked them. Which got me thinking: Justin Williams is a Lebowski Rug player.
In the Coen Brothers' seminal comedy "The Big Lebowski," the centerpiece of The Dude's stoner hovel is a rug. Not the prettiest rug, nor the most luxurious. But damn if it didn't really tie the room together. When that rug gets urinated on or stolen by Maude Lebowski to get one's attention, the impact of its absence becomes abundantly clear.
Make no mistake: Justin Williams is a top six forward who's posted a 70-point season. But he's not Eric Staal, and he's not Rod Brind'Amour. His impact on the team is measured more in his subtraction than it is appreciated when he's on the ice; like last season's protracted absence with an injury. He's the Lebowski Rug of the Hurricanes. You don't know what you've got 'till it's gone.
But the NHL is full of these kinds of players, who aren't going to the All-Star Game but whose absence has, in the past, hugely impacted their teams. Here are a few names; how many Lebowski Rugs does your team have?
Colin White, New Jersey Devils: He'll never be Scott Stevens of Scott Niedermayer or Brian Rafalski as far as hockey cred goes. But as the Devils' defense is currently constituted, he may as well be Rod Langway. He's one of the few true physical presences on the blueline. He missed the start of last season with an injury; all the Devils did upon his return in November was go on an 8-0-1 run.
Jere Lehtinen, Dallas Stars: His all-star days are behind him, which allows the winger to sometimes get overlooked. But know this: He missed December and January last season due to injury; he came back in February and the Stars ripped off a 12-2 run. He's a lot like Williams in the sense that he's no Mike Modano or Brenden Morrow -- he can never be the sole reason your team is slumping. But damn if you don't miss him dearly when he's out.
Brett Clark, Colorado Avalanche: He wasn't the most famous name to end up in the infirmary last season for the Avs, but he's good at everything and great at nothing. Versatile, able to adjust his playing time to different roles. A nearly perfect example of the Lebowski Rug: You don't get emotional about the rug until someone takes a leak on it, and you don't miss Brett Clark until he's eating popcorn in the press box.
The Buffalo Sabres: A bit of a cheat putting an entire team here? Let me ask you this: Is there another roster in the NHL that has as many Lebowski Rugs as the Sabres do? And not just because Ryan Miller looks like he could really pull off a Donny from "Lebowski" costume at Halloween.
Here's the thing with the Lebowski Rugs of the NHL: Their losses aren't always deal-breakers. That's the difference between the Lebowski Rug and a Lynch Pin or an Unsung Hero: The Rugs can actually inspire with their absence. Look at Williams and the Hurricanes: The team was 18-16-3 with him, 25-17-3 without him last season. So while some had him pegged for as much as 73 points this season, Carolina will adapt and excel, just like it did last year. Hopefully, the Pittsburgh Penguins do the same with Ryan Whitney's loss -- he's a bit of a Lebowski Rug, too.
Losing a Lebowski Rug can inspire greatness. If The Dude hadn't lost his, would the mystery of Bunny's kidnapping ever have been solved?
But that's the thing about injuries, man: Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes, well, he eats you ...
So who are your Lebowski Rug players?