Only four other Penguins had a lower plus/minus rating than Rob Scuderi during the 2005-06 season, his first full season in the National Hockey League. Scuderi's minus-18 rating and the team's last-place finish in the Atlantic Division made his rookie season tough to bear from a personal and team standpoint.
But those growing pains are now long gone as Scuderi has completed the transformation from underwhelming to underappreciated and now -- thanks to a second consecutive Stanley Cup final appearance in his fourth NHL season -- recognition as a first-rate "defensive defenseman" in the league.
"He's been contributing since he's been here, but winning puts more of the spotlight on the role players, especially, and he's getting recognized for the great job that he's done," said assistant coach Mike Yeo, who has been around Scuderi longer than any other member of the Penguins organization, coaching him when he was a youngster at the Penguins' minor league affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
"He's not the type of guy who in one particular game will jump out at you for the fantastic things he does. But game by game, if you're around him enough, you see what he contributes to the team. I've been with him for a long time, so I'm not surprised.
"I saw how effective he was in the American Hockey League. As that kind of player, not a lot of scouts will jump up and say this guy is fast or gifted. But people on the inside really value what he brings to the team."
His value this season could be measured by the most important statistics for defensemen. He leads the team in blocked shots and is on the ice more than anyone else in short-handed situations.
And, coming almost full circle, he led the team during the regular season in plus/minus rating with a plus-23, a 41-point turnaround from his rookie season.
"I've been fortunate to get better each year in my career," said Scuderi, who was a fifth-round draft choice in 1998. "That's something I've always tried to focus on in my career even before I got to this league. If you try to get a little better each year, you'd be surprised at how much better you can get. I still feel like I'm on the upswing."
Scuderi has been getting praise heaped upon him for his defensive work against the opposition's top players throughout the playoffs. He limited Alexander Ovechkin to minimal point production when they were on the ice together in that epic Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Washington Capitals. He also kept Carolina's Eric Staal in check in the Eastern Conference final, limiting him to one goal in the four-game sweep of the Hurricanes.
"I don't think there is anything he does that goes unnoticed on this team," said Hal Gill, Scuderi's partner on the blue line. "He knows his role. He's just as important as Geno [Evgeni Malkin], Flower [Marc-Andre Fleury] or Sid [Sidney Crosby]. He's a guy that everyone knows is going to go out there and be steady, be strong with the puck."
Scuderi, who is in the final year of a contract that pays him $725,000 this season, will need to maintain his level of performance if the Penguins are to overcome their 2-0 deficit against the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup final.
The Red Wings feature high-caliber players throughout their lineup, including Henrik Zetterberg and Marian Hossa. Keeping those players in check will be a determining factor in how the series plays out.
And while some would grimace at the notion of being labeled a "defensive defenseman," Scuderi has no qualms about embracing his role on this team loaded with high-end offensive talent.
"Absolutely not," he said. "Everyone has a role on this team. That's my role. If this team counted on me to run a power play it probably wouldn't be the best power play in the world. I'm not ashamed of what I do for my team or how I help my team win. To be on a successful team you have to have guys who accept roles on and take pride in those roles. I'm always going to be a role player and I'm fine with that. I'm the piece to the puzzle that you need to get a championship."