Bill Houlder’s job description sounds like an oxymoron: Offensive defenseman. How contradictory can you get?
Sometimes it’s a little confusing to Houlder, too, which might explain why he’s often in hot water with Coach Ron Wilson.
The Mighty Ducks want, and sometimes desperately need, Houlder to score and set up goals. But never at the expense of bottling up opponents’ scorers.
They want him jumping into the offensive action, unleashing that powerful slap shot of his, particularly on power-play opportunities. But they don’t want him getting carried away, thinking he’s Bobby Orr.
It’s a role that requires a delicate touch, and after 53 games it’s difficult to say whether Houlder has been a success or a failure. Certainly, he’s been a little of each at different times this season.
On one hand, he’s the Ducks’ third-leading scorer with 30 points (11 goals and 19 assists).
On the other, his plus-minus rating is minus 18.
Wilson couldn’t be happier with Houlder’s offensive contributions, occasionally marveling at his goal-scoring skills.
“The fact is he has 11 goals and that’s as many as most of our forwards,” Wilson said. “He’s on our power play because of his shooting and passing abilities.”
But that’s not enough to keep Wilson happy.
“He’s also a minus 18,” he said. “OK, he’s playing on a first-year team, but he’s far and away the worst on the team. He has moments where he forgets he’s in a game. But (lately) those moments are fewer and fewer.”
Harsh criticism to be sure, but it’s nothing Houlder hasn’t heard.
The Ducks don’t want him to dramatically alter his game, only to refine it and pick his spots better. They need his offensive skills, but they want more from him defensively.
“He’s got to put more pressure on himself not to be satisfied and he’ll be fine,” Wilson said. “It takes some guys a while to learn. You just hope they learn before it’s too late.”
Like so many of the Ducks, Houlder has bounced from the minor leagues to the NHL and back to the minors throughout his career and now he’s getting his most extensive ice time.
There were bound to be a few kinks to work out for Houlder, a former Buffalo Sabre and Washington Capital who had never played more than 41 NHL games in one season.
He is grateful for the opportunity to showcase his skills after spending six seasons as a part-time NHL player. But he’s not about to relax, not when there’s so much improvement to be made.
He knows what needs to be done, even how to do it, but getting it accomplished hasn’t been easy.
“I think things have gone fairly well, but I’ve struggled at certain times,” said Houlder, who was selected from Buffalo in the 1993 expansion draft. “Normally, you’d get sent down (to the minors). But they’ve stuck with me.”
Already, he’s surpassed his offensive goals for this season. And if that’s all that mattered to him, then he could walk away happy.
“Offense is what they were expecting out of me,” Houlder said. “It seems to come (easily). As long as you have an offensive sense you’re never going to lose it. It’s the defense you always have to work on.”
Despite that philosophy, there have been times when the Ducks have had to remind Houlder to keep shooting the puck, defenseman Randy Ladouceur said.
“We were concerned where the goals were going to come from,” said Ladouceur, a 12-year NHL veteran. “He’s effective when he’s jumping up in the play. That’s what made him so successful at San Diego last year and what’s helped him in the NHL. He’s got a great shot. When he shoots, it’s going in there hard.”
On the flip side, Houlder seemed to get caught out of position far too often early in the season. Again and again, the right time for a charge up the ice seemed to elude Houlder.
Opponents would counterattack and Houlder would be hopelessly lost on the play. His mistake invariably led to a goal for the other team.
Wilson stewed on the bench and Houlder wondered when things would go his way. It certainly wasn’t this difficult in San Diego, where he had 72 points and was a plus 50 in 64 games with the International Hockey League’s Gulls last season.
“That was just endless fun,” Houlder said. “You come to the rink and you’re always winning. We took offense that any team would have the gall to beat us.”
Houlder knew the Ducks wouldn’t win like the Gulls, who were 62-12-8, but he was in for a rude awakening nevertheless.
“I was in a mini-slump there for a while,” he said of the early part of this season. “No one seems to be happy with you. You have to reassess everything. But you have to stick with your game.
“I’m just not that good enough of a player where I could force things. Usually, they blow up in my face.”
In those cases, Ladouceur was there, in Houlder’s words, to “pick you up and dust you off.”
Houlder is learning from his mistakes, which makes Ladouceur happy.
“He’s realized as the season’s gone on that when we’re up a goal or two, he’s not needed to help offensively,” Ladouceur said.
In those cases, it’s best to sit back and let the forwards pursue the scoring chances.
“He has to play within his limitations, be smart and focused,” Wilson said.
It sounds simple, even to Houlder.
“You just have to be particular about picking your spots,” Houlder said. “You don’t want to be caught with somebody behind you. Before, I was jumping up at the wrong time and it seemed to always cost us a goal.”
Houlder believes he’s smarter now, more willing to wait for the right time to capitalize on someone else’s mistake.