by Mike G. Morreale || NHL.com
To some, Minnesota Wild forward Cal Clutterbuck is regarded as the human pinball. To others, like coach Jacques Lemaire, he’s a diamond in the rough.
"Never have I had a player in their first season in the League that possessed the type of feistiness that Cal has," Lemaire said. "This kid even kills penalties, so he understands the game well. He’s got great legs, can skate and he can hit."
Fact of the matter is, when it comes to playing the body, no one has done it consistently better than Clutterbuck, who has already established a League record with 327 hits this season. The former mark of 311 was set by Los Angeles wing Dustin Brown in 2007-08. Hits were first counted in the 2004-05 season. This season, Brown has 263 hits through 73 games, but Clutterbuck has raised the bar through 72.
"I think over the last 10-15 games, it’s kind of become a reality that I could set the record, but there’s always guys on pace to do record-breaking things and it never turns out that way," Clutterbuck said. "I mean, I’ve seen guys score 30 goals in the first 30 games and then go the next 20 games without scoring."
When it comes to throwing a check, however, Clutterbuck, who averages 4.52 hits a game, hasn’t let up.
While Clutterbuck, 21, has just eight goals and 13 points in his first NHL season, his tremendous desire each shift has not only inspired teammates, but Lemaire.
"It’s one of those things where hits are not as obvious as scoring goals or getting points and a lot of times, it goes unnoticed, but it’s good to know that people are noticing, especially my coach," Clutterbuck said. "It’s a good feeling and a little bit reassuring to know that if I keep doing what I’m doing, I’ll be OK."
"He plays the game hard like players who have been around for a few years," Lemaire said. "That’s his style. It’s funny because I never told him to hit once since he’s been here. It’s something that comes natural; to play a rugged game."
Clutterbuck, who has four times recorded nine hits or more in a game, set a franchise record with 10 hits against the San Jose Sharks in a 5-4 overtime loss on March 10. He averages just over 12 minutes a game, including times when his team is shorthanded.
"It’s not all about going out there and banging, but he’s killing penalties and he creates offense," Wild assistant coach Mike Ramsey said. "He goes to the net, puts pucks on the net and he’ll forecheck. You put that whole package together and that’s what we like in him."
Despite not making the roster out of training camp, Clutterbuck rolled up his sleeves and went to work. And, lo and behold, the 5-foot-10, 216-pound battering ram would be recalled five days later from Houston of the American Hockey League.
The Minnesota coaching staff was genuinely impressed with Clutterbuck’s aggressiveness during the NHL Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, Mich., in September.
"He’s been a great surprise for us this year," Lemaire said. "He came in at the start and we never felt the kid would stay but he showed so much desire, so much willingness to play hard, to play the game. We decided to keep him and since then, he’s been really solid."
Ramsey echoed Lemaire’s sentiments.
"We didn’t expect him to be here and now he’s on our checking line, playing a lot of minutes and he’s become a big factor for us every night because he brings us energy," Ramsey said. "He works every day and no matter if you’re a tough guy or star player, he’s going to dog the puck and finish his check. He’s refreshing to coach because he works."
Clutterbuck, the 72nd pick by the Wild in 2006, appeared in two games with Minnesota in 2007-08 but spent a majority of the season in Houston, where he recorded 11 goals, 24 points and 97 penalty minutes in 73 games in his first professional season with the Aeros.
He also spent three seasons with the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League, notching career highs in assists (54) and points (89) during the 2006-07 seasons. While those days of piling up the points have gone, Clutterbuck admits he remains the same type of player.
"My junior career started off the same way as my pro career because I didn’t really score that many goals," Clutterbuck said. "In my first year of junior (with the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors in 2003-04), I only scored four goals. My offense is something that has kind of progressed through the years and I hope I’ll be able to do the same in this League."
Whether or not he eventually finds his offensive groove, Clutterbuck has certainly earned the respect of his teammates.
"When he’s on the ice, you’re kind of just waiting for something to happen," Wild defenseman Martin Skoula said. "You could see how determined he is every shift."
"It’s his first year, so some guys don’t know him but they do after they play against him," forward Pierre-Marc Bouchard said. "He’s got great speed and a good timing to hit people. He also has a good shot as well and he’s able to score goals. It’s nice to see young guys like this coming into the League and performing well on our team."
Clutterbuck prefers to play with a bit of a chip on his shoulder.
"If you play that way then you really have nothing to lose," Clutterbuck said. "The nervousness kind of drifts away and you just go out and enjoy yourself. All you can do is give it all you got and, underdog or not, your skills and muscle memory will eventually take over once you’re heart is in it."