WINNIPEG - Every hockey team has them. Call them the grunts.
They are the fourth-liners who toil away from the limelight, content to do their part while others get the glory.
Not getting scored against is their top priority, getting down and dirty their M.O.
It’s hockey’s equivalent of down-on-your-knees, mud-under-the-fingernails labour, and if you don’t like it, there are plenty of others waiting in the wings to do it.
No, the pay isn’t great. But dammit, you’re in the NHL.
At least, that’s how it is for most of them.
Then there’s the Jets’ Nik Antropov: the $4-million foot soldier.
On pace for one of the worst seasons, offensively, of his career (he has 10 goals, 30 points), Antropov has become an interesting, and dare we say productive, role player.
Demoted during a recent 16-game goal drought, the 32-year-old seems to have rediscovered his game in the most unlikely of places: at the end of the bench reserved for the pluggers, checking, throwing his weight around, even adding two goals in the last three games, alongside Tim Stapleton and Antti Miettinen.
“That’s what you have to do — contribute somehow,” Antropov told the Winnipeg Sun. “Puck’s not going in so you’ve got to do something else. Why not?
“I’ve never been afraid to play body. When things are going well for you, you’re scoring and contributing, you don’t pay attention to it. But if not, you try to grind it out.”
Antropov, the grinder — who’d have thought?
“Everything in your life sometimes the first time,” the big Kazak said, managing a laugh through the Russian accent.
It’s no wonder the Toronto Maple Leafs looked at Antropov and made him their first-round draft pick, 14 years ago.
At 6-foot-6, 245 pounds, and with soft hands, the guy oozes star potential.
The knock on him over the years: a lack of intensity.
You couldn’t say that over the last few games, though, when Antropov appears to have bought into the Jets one-for-all, all-for-one approach.
If you’re not scoring, he says, at least don’t get scored against.
“I’ve always been that way. I’ve never been selfish,” Antropov said. “Team stats is more important than the personal stats for me. When things not going good or they’re going great, it still doesn’t matter. It’s all about team and 20 guys playing beside each other.”
That sounds like a tune directly from Claude Noel’s songbook.
It seems the Jets head coach lit a fire under Antropov with his demotion.
“I don’t know about that,” Noel said. “There might have been for a bit. Everyone’s taken a reduction in minutes, to a degree. We’re getting a lot out of four lines. We’re reliant on everybody taking part.”
Antropov might not have a long-term future, here, although with another year on his contract, it’s hard to move him.
Nobody’s looking for a fourth-liner who makes his kind of money.
So for the time being, he’ll continue to be the unlikely grinder, a bit player on a team that needs every one of them.
“It’s pretty close,” Antropov said of the Jets dressing room. “The results, you can see. It’s a good atmosphere right now to play in.”