With only 22 professional hockey games under his belt over the past 22 months, Darren Helm, the best third-line center in the league when he’s healthy, is still catching up with the NHL. If he were in peak condition, the Red Wings would have beaten the Blackhawks in regulation instead of 5-4 in the shootout Wednesday night.
And though the minus-3 rating and 45 percent faceoff win rate he contributed in a meager 10:55 of ice time against Chicago was very un-Helm like, he’s as fierce and fast a checker as he’s always been. In fact, he still shows signs he’s more than just an ordinary third-line checker.
Despite being in and out of the lineup this season after missing all but one game of the last, 27-year-old Helm is quickly approaching his career-high in goals. And though his shootout-winner Wednesday doesn’t count under that column, the smooth sure-handed shot he delivered is the type that makes you wonder where his offensive game could be today had he not been cursed with injuries for almost two years.
Perhaps a 20-goal scorer? Perhaps a Selke candidate?
Helm’s career had been trending up over his first three NHL seasons as his role with the Red Wings expanded. But a wild run of bad luck with the injury bug has stalled all his progress.
A knee injury cut his 2011-12 season down to 68 games and though he was back for the playoffs, a skate blade severed tendons in his forearm and ended his post-season run in the very first game.
He was again supposed to be ready for the start of the lockout-shortened season last January, but he hurt his back lifting weights just before training camp. That injury was expected to be short-term at first – and he did play last Jan. 25 – but it nagged and nagged and ultimately cost him a season.
And it’s even continued in 2013-14. During his conditioning stint with AHL Grand Rapids in October, Helm tweaked his groin, which delayed his NHL comeback until Nov. 2, when he scored the game-winner on his first shot. Then it was a shoulder injury that cost him most of December and the groin again that cost him the Winter Classic and most of January.
In 18 games this season, Helm has seven goals and 11 points, a full-season pace that would shatter his current best of 12 goals and 32 points. And he’s done it over an interrupted re-acclimatization period.
At some point, Helm will be mentioned in regards to the Bill Masterton Trophy. Maybe he’s still missing too many games to win it this year, especially with Manny Malhotra and, potentially, Steven Stamkos also deserving recognition. Maybe it’s Helm’s to lose next season, if he can work back into full-time duty.
So far full-time has eluded him, but here’s hoping he gets back to that point again. The NHL, and Detroit, is just a little more exciting when this third-liner is at the top of his game.