Not long ago I asked Art Friedman, the New York Rangers' crack statistician, if he could cite a vital statistic or two to illustrate the recent superlative play of defenseman barry Beck.
Without batting an eye or a decimal point, Friedman said: "The key statistic is that when he came back from an injury the team went on a five-game winning streak. He's a dominant force."
Mike Nykoluk, the Ranger assistant coach, speaks in the same vien.
"He is just so very dominating both offesively and defensively, and he never seems to come close to playing a poor game," Nykoluk says. "He has a great shot and a tremendous sense for spotting the open man and putting the puck right on his stick, and his body-checking is the best I've seen in a lot of years."
At 6 ft. 3 in. and 215 pounds, looming much larger on skates, the 22-year-old Beck is explosive offensively and intimidating defensively. He's the big, versatile backliner the Rangers believe was the difference between them and Stanley Cup champion Montreal in the playoff finals last spring. The Canadiens featured Larry Robinson and Serge Savard on defense; the Rangers had no such menacing presence.
Beck is the one man New York Coach Fred Shero had been saying for over a year he wanted for his roster, and in November his boss, Sonny Werblin, was able to pry Barry loose from the Colorado Rockies in exchange for Pat Hickey, Mike McEwen, Lucian DeBlois, and a few incidentals, including a saddlebag full of cash. Now Beck, in his third year as a pro, is beginning to look like the superstar he was labeled a bit prematurely.
Not very coincidentally the Rangers, unimpressive the first half of the season, are beginning to look like Stanley Cup contenders.
There are other recent bright spots besides the young Vancouver native. Ulf Nilsson, their best center, returned to the lineup about the same time as Beck and has been spectacular. John Davidson has returned to his old stonewalling form in goal. And Ron Duguay, a flashy young forward, is starting to fulfill hism considerable potential.
"It isn't just me," Beck says. "Things are finally starting to come together for us. It's great to play with such a talented bunch of guys -- it makes it much easier for me to improve.
"For a while after I came here I played a little more cautiously than I prefer. It took a while to get used to new teammates and a new system, but now I'm gaining confidence and doing more with the puck."
Against his old Colorado team the other night, Beck gave a show-stopping demonstration of doing more with the puck.
Like a top center in pro basketball, a Dave Cowens, say, he repeatedly made crisp, precise outlet passes to spring the Ranger forwards out of their own zone and on their way to 3-on-2 fast breaks. Not infrequently, Beck raced right along with them to make it a four-man rush, and on one slice of end-to-end action he started a play in front of his own goal and nearly finished it in front of the Rockies' net!
Another time Beck rushed the puck the length of the rink, just missed setting up a Ranger goal, and long-legged it back to help Davidson by dumping a Colorado winger who was open in the slot and then slapping the puck aside.
"You think it isn't reassuring having him in front of you?" Davidson asks rhetorically.
Playing so aggressively, Beck occasionally is burned, getting caught too far out of position or taking a penalty for a hit that is too hard. Shero does not seem disposed to change his style, though, saying, "I'm happy with everything about the way he's playing."
Ranger forwards like Don Maloney are becoming quick to drop back and cover for Beck when he penetrates deep into the attacking zone.
"He's as mobile as a forward, and probably the strongest man in hockey in the corners," Maloney says. "If he wants to go in there, power to him. It's like having an extra attacker."
The offensive-minded Beck has ranked third or fourth among the Rangers' season scoring leaders in recent weeks, only a few points out of the lead. He has made four times the number of assists as goals, but has a scorching slap shot that he gets away quickly with an abruptly upright left-handed swing. Moving in several steps on a face-off in the Colorado zone, he collected the puck from Nilsson and slammed it past the Rockies' goalie before that overmatched citizen could so much as twitch.
Though he played more than half the game, seeing duty on power plays, killing penalties, and standing out all over the ice, Beck, who doesn't wear a helmet, came to the locker room with seemingly every inch of his Command Performance-type haircut still tidily in place.
"Would you want to be the one to muss up Bubba's hair?" asked center Phil Esposito, calling Beck by his nickname.
Dominant as Beck often is during games, he is quiet -- almost shy -- elsewhere. "I'm not a rah-rah guy," he says. "I do my leading on the ice."
As far as the revived Rangers are concerned, that is the perfect place for it.