The role of an agitator is a difficult one in the NHL. Expected to be a "tough guy", expected to be able to play against some of the opponents' top forwards, and expected to force the other team to make mistakes without harming his own club on or off the ice, it's something that very few do well, and those that do are almost uniformly loved in the cities they play for and hated everywhere else. Sean Avery, Darcy Tucker, Jordin Tootoo...and Derek Dorsett.
Surprisingly, given his status as a fan favorite in Columbus, Dorsett has only played two seasons at the NHL level, joining the team for the first time in 2008-2009 for 52 games, 4 goals, 1 assist, -1, and150 penalty minutes. Before his NHL debut, he played 3 seasons for the Medicine Hat Tigers of the WHL, where he developed a reputation as a player with an edge, but a surprising offensive touch - in his final season of junior before jumping to the Pros in 2006-2007, Dorsett netted 19 goals and 45 assists, while staying a +17 and still racking up 206 penalty minutes on the way to a WHL championship.
Last year, Dorsett was viewed as a guy who would stand up for his teammates and get under the skin of opponents, and was expected to continue in his role. However, after getting off to a promising start, his season was almost over before it began after a frightening and illegal hit to the head from Dallas' James Neal (another agitator of note) that left Dorsett out of the lineup with a concussion for 9 games. Even worse, upon his return in mid-December, Dorsett would break his right hand in a fight against Anaheim's Mike Brown, putting him on the shelf for another month while the team spiraled down the standings.
Upon his return, however, Dorsett had a surprising addition to his wardrobe: An assistant captaincy. Asked to step up in the leadership group by Ken Hitchcock shortly before the end of his tenure in Columbus, Doors took this as a challenge to try and spark the team, and it seems the responsibility agreed with him.
Dorsett brought in 10 of his 14 points this past season after being named to the leadership group, and his ice time jumped from an average of eight or nine minutes a night to almost thirteen minutes, and finishing the year at a +6 rating. Asked to set an example, Dorsett also worked to reduce his penalties, only taking three fighting majors after his return to the team, and reducing his average PIMs per game from 3.6 to 1.36. We often talk about younger players needing to mature in the NHL, but Dorsett is one of the few who clearly did so, and has the numbers to back it up. He didn't really change his game drastically - he simply seems to have had a light bulb go on about when it's best for him to get into an opponent's face or be willing to get involved in a scrum, and when it's best to just take a mental note of the opposing player's number and keep skating back to the bench.
With his ability to play on the third line, and even occasionally take shifts in the top 6 when asked, this is going to be a big year for Derek. He's proven he has the character to be a leader, and he's clearly willing to stand up for his teammates on and off the ice. He's shown he can work to improve his game, and he's shown that while he'll never be a major scoring threat, he is able to contribute and go to the net for the greasy, grindy goals that every team needs to succeed. What he does need to prove this season is that his body will hold up to the demands of the NHL schedule. His high for a pro season to this point is 64 games in his one season in Syracuse. If Dorsett is going to be a catalyst for his team, they need him on the ice, not nursing injuries on the training table.
New head coach Scott Arniel knows Dorsett from his time in the AHL, where he and the Syracuse Crunch had a brutally physical, back and forth series against Arniel's Manitoba Moose where neither side would back down, until the Crunch finally put the Moose away in game 6. Arniel has said that Dorsett was one of the players who impressed him the most in that series was his physical play and his determination. If Dorsett can continue to show those same talents in Arniel's system and stay healthy, the future should be very bright.
2010/2011 Prediction: 70GP, 6G, 14A, 110 PIMs.
I'm not expecting Dorsett to suddenly turn into a point producing machine, but I think that if he continues to work on his endurance and improving his game, good things are going to happen. Dorsett has been working out in Columbus this summer, and I expect him to be one of the guys reaping the benefits of getting to work with the new Strength & Conditioning coach before others. (Not to mention that, god willing, I don't expect Dorsett to get cheap-shotted and concussed again this year!) His game will always draw penalties, especially if he continues to stand up for his teammates in situations like this, but I think it's reasonable to expect him to continue to show the same improved sense of timing that he used through the end of last season, and to keep bringing passion and leadership to the locker room. (And a timely goal now and then wouldn't hurt, right?)