Calm, Cool and Collected
Of all the attributes Dick Tarnstrom possesses as a hockey player, the one that arguably impacts his game the most is patience. It's evident in the way he plays at both ends of the rink, whether he's coolly rushing the puck up the ice or playing a sound defensive game against opposition in the Jackets' zone. After all, this is a guy who was drafted 272nd overall by the New York Islanders in the 1994 but didn't debut in the NHL until seven years later. Tarnstrom has proven he can wait.
One of the most prolific offensive defensemen in the league in the two seasons prior to the lockout, the 33-year-old native of Sundyberg, Sweden was in one of those similar holding patterns the past couple of years. He had an uneventful tenure with the Edmonton Oilers and a year in the Swiss-A League but a trade to Columbus back on February 1 has invigorated the veteran D-man, while also adding a new dimension to the Jackets' defensive corps.
"They gave me a little bit of a different role since I got here," says Tarnstrom. "It's been fun. It's been more my type of game. No complaints at all.
"This room is all about going out to play for each other. Especially lately, I think we've played a really good stretch. We haven't been able to win all of the games but we've been playing some good hockey. It makes it fun to play.
"It's been a big difference from how the year went in Edmonton."
Tarnstrom initially had a few immigration issues on the way into town but after his visa was granted, he made an immediate impact on the Columbus back end. He drew an assist in his first game with the Jackets, scored in his second and then chipped in two more assists in his third, a huge 5-1 win over Detroit.
Overall, he's scored twice and had six helpers in the 13 games since his arrival. Points are nothing new for Tarnstrom. He's been racking them up since he was a kid in Sweden.
"I'm fortunate I've been to be able to do that," he says. "There are different ways to break into the league. Some maybe run the power play, some might be tough guys. There are different jobs on the team. As long as I can be helpful to the team, if it's by scoring points or shutting down a line, I'll do whatever I can.
"It's always fun trying to create something but you have to be careful. Especially how the league is right now, if you lose the puck in the wrong place, it's an odd-man rush the other way."
But Tarnstrom is showing much more than the ability to contribute offensively. He's an intelligent, poised defender, who has fared well paired with Ron Hainsey the past few weeks. Michael Peca has seen those traits first hand, on a couple of different occasions. The two were teammates with the Oilers and also with the Islanders in the 2001-02 season, so when Peca heard that Tarnstrom was coming to Columbus, he was excited about the addition both personally and professionally.
Peca says that Tarnstrom is a player who can showcase a lot when given the right opportunity.
"He's a very calming presence back there," says Peca. "He moves the puck extremely well coming out of our zone. Every team wants to have as many puck moving defensemen as they can and he's a very good one.
"But he's also really smart, which always has him in position defensively. He's a guy that when you're out there on the power play or if it's five-on-five, I feel very comfortable being on the ice with him because I know he understands the game and I know that I can trust him in all situations."
With the departure of captain Adam Foote, there have been minutes to be had on the blueline and Tarnstrom has been one player who's seen his ice time increase recently. He recognizes that no one really plays the exact same game as Foote but collectively, he says the unit has done a good job, specifically in the past eight games or so.
Tarnstrom himself has had a handful of games where he's approached 25 minutes a night, which took a toll considering his limited play this season prior to joining the Jackets. Head coach Ken Hitchcock thought Tarnstrom was terrific when he first arrived and then hit a bit of a wall as the minutes went up. But he loves what the veteran has brought to the team.
"Now he's really starting to come back," Hitchcock says. "He recognized that game shape is a lot different from just practicing. We knew he was going to get there. He's made a big impact helping us transition wise and I think his big play with the puck has an overall effect on everybody."
That patience has been apparent in Tarnstrom's play, something Hitchcock says is a trademark of Swedish defenders.
"They don't panic under pressure," the coach says. "He does a really good job with understanding that the game is a positional game."
Tarnstrom will be an unrestricted free agent after this season. As an older player, he says he approaches things one year at a time and though Tarnstrom's unsure of what the future holds for him, he has enjoyed the brief time in Columbus. It's been especially comforting since his wife Linda and boys Oliver, five, and Wilmer, three, have joined him.
"Me and my family have really responded well to the move," says Tarnstrom. "We've enjoyed every day here. "It's been exceptionally good."