Hits keep on comin'

DEREK VAN DIEST, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:50 AM ET

Cal Clutterbuck realized early what it was going to take for him to play in the NHL.

Not blessed with dazzling talent or impressive size, the Minnesota Wild rookie knew he needed to fill a certain role in order to land a job playing professional hockey.

As an agitating, checking forward who leads the league in hits, Clutterbuck, 21, is fitting in perfectly with the Minnesota Wild.

"There aren't many of those guys in the league," said Wild head coach Jacques Lemaire. "Maybe four or five years ago, you had more of these types of players. You can't find these guys now.

"He's a kid that probably came into the right team because we needed that type of player. He came in and started to get some hits and he's a decent skater, so he probably felt that he could get a job here doing that every game. That's how he got in, and now he's starting to work on his shot and he's starting to score some goals."

Heading into last night's game against the Edmonton Oilers, the five-foot-11, 216-pound native of Welland, Ont., had eight goals and three assists in 43 games for the Wild this season. He's also officially registered 173 hits, a franchise high for the club.

"I think I've been playing the same game for five or six years, starting with my first year in junior," Clutterbuck said. "I just try to work hard and play within my means, play within myself, I don't try to do too much.

"At the same time, when the opportunity is there and it's the right time then I'll try and do something offensively and shoot the puck. But I know my role, I know why I'm here."

Originally the Wild's third-round pick - 72nd overall - in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, Clutterbuck had 24 points in 73 games with the Houston Aeros of the American Hockey League last season.

In junior with the Oshawa Generals, he twice finished with 35 goals in a season.

"That's how it goes with the players in the NHL sometimes," Lemaire said. "They get into the NHL and then they start to score some goals and they get a sense of achievement.

"Even guys that are on a checking line, when they get the responsibility of checking the top players, it's a great challenge for them."

Clutterbuck, however, is not just a player who skates around taking runs at everyone on the ice. He has a knack for delivering timely hits.

"I think there is a lot of anticipation involved in getting a good hit," Clutterbuck said. "It's a lot like picking off a pass and knowing where to go in the offensive zone. It's the same kind of concept. You just need to know which way a defenceman is going to turn at a certain time, where he's going to go and where the puck is coming from. You have to be able to time yourself so you're able to get there at the right time. It's something that I've developed and something that I continue to work on hoping I get better at."

The rookie forward doesn't just have the ability to get there, but also to deliver it with some wallop.

Unlike some players who have a tendency to lean into opponents, Clutterbuck tries to skate through them in an attempt to put them into the first row.

"I was telling one of the guys here that I just look at it as an easier way to stop," Clutterbuck said. "It's easier than stopping and starting. It's easier on the legs."

Perhaps. But in today's NHL it's something some players take exception to, at times forcing the rookie to back up his action with his fists.

"It happens a lot with some teams more than others," Clutterbuck said. "I figure if the hit is clean and if they want to come up to me and want to fight, I'm not going to fight unless our team needs a boost. So if they want to take a penalty, that's fine with me, I'm not going to retaliate."


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