When the Anaheim Ducks won the Stanley Cup in 2007, they were one of the few teams employing an old coaching standard: a dedicated checking line. Most teams have a third line with defensively-oriented players on it, but it has become more and more common for coaches to match their top line against the top line of other teams in a power-vs.-power configuration.
The Ducks, however, preferred to give those duties to the “Nothing” line, a veteran trio centered by Samuel Pahlsson and flanked by Travis Moen and Rob Niedermayer. This allowed the Ducks’ other lines (one centered by Andy McDonald, the other centered by the title character) to play against weaker opponents and run up the score. It was an effective model and one that gave young players like Getzlaf and Corey Perry a chance to develop in the NHL without being forced to tackle the best players in the league night in and night out.
Last season, the training wheels came off. The Ducks started making trades, sending Moen to San Jose and dealing Pahlsson to Chicago. Niedermayer survived for a few more games, but went un-signed in the off-season and eventually found his way to New Jersey.
The question was how well Getzlaf would handle his new role: he’s obviously a supremely talented player, but suddenly being called upon to be a defensive zone presence and play the opposition’s best is a big leap to make. But he’s been excellent. His garish plus/minus totals (plus-49 between 2006-08) have disappeared, although a) that’s at least in part a function of the team around him as well and b) he’s still on the positive side of the ledger, and he struggled a little bit early on, but his offence hasn’t suffered and the team now has the comfort of developing other players behind him in the line-up.
I don’t know how common it is for a player to make a successful leap from dominating lesser opponents to not only shutting down but outscoring the league’s best, but it certainly seems remarkable and Getzlaf has managed to do it.