On Saturday, the Caps claimed the 14-year NHL veteran off waivers from the Kings. A seven-time 20-goal scorer in the NHL, Sturm is headed to Washington later today and will join his new team and teammates this weekend in the District.
For Sturm, this has been a season of unrest. A productive member of the San Jose Sharks for the better part of a decade and then the Boston Bruins since just after the lockout, Sturm was traded to Los Angeles for future considerations on December 11. He had missed the first few months of the season after undergoing off-season knee surgery for an injury suffered in the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs.
After so much stability throughout most of his career, Sturm is now faced with packing up his life and moving across the country for the second time in under three months.
“That wasn’t what I wanted to do,” says Sturm, “but it’s been really good road for me, a really good career. Things didn’t work out in L.A. for whatever reason, and I am really excited to be a Capital. I am hoping to bring my experience and help the team through the stretch and the playoffs.”
A first-round draft choice (21st overall) in the 1996 NHL Entry Draft, Sturm is the NHL’s all-time leader in goals, assists, points and games by a player born and raised in Germany. He has a great deal of international experience representing his country in three different Olympic Games (1998, 2002 and 2010). He was also named to the 2006 team but did not compete because of injury.
Speed has always been Sturm’s calling card, but he is also a strong two-way player with a good shot and a high compete level. At the age of 32, he should still have some useful years ahead of him if his wheels haven’t deteriorated too much.
Therein lies the rub. Limited to just 19 games in 2008-09 because of a Dec. 18 knee injury, Sturm rebound to score 22 goals – including the game-winner in overtime in the 2010 Winter Classic at Fenway Park – and total 37 points for the Bruins in 2009-10. But in a May 1 playoff game against the Flyers, Sturm suffered torn ACL and MCL ligaments. He underwent surgery last May 18 to repair the injuries.
“I’m doing all right,” says Sturm, when asked about his current physical condition. “I don’t know if I am all the way there yet. I really worked hard off the ice to get my strength back. I am feeling pretty close to where I was last year. It’s been a tough couple of years with all the injuries and all the rehab. Hopefully, it will be a fresh start for me with the new team.”
As he rehabbed the injury and got closer to returning, the Bruins began to look for relief against the salary cap so they could squeeze in another player – center Marc Savard – who was coming back from a lengthy absence because of injury. Boston arranged a deal with the Kings, sending Sturm – in the last year of a deal that counts $3.5 million annually against the salary cap – to Los Angeles, basically doing so for the mere favor of taking the salary off the Bruins’ books.
Sturm got back into action with the Kings in December, but was sidelined once again in January with tendinitis in his knee. He returned to action once again earlier this week, skating in back-to-back games against Anaheim and Minnesota, respectively. Sturm logged 16:51 in ice time in the first of those two contests and 13:18 in the second game.
Playing games on back-to-back nights is a good sign.
“I’m pretty close,” says Sturm. “When I got to LA I noticed that threw was still some work to do. I worked hard the last three or four weeks to get my speed and strength back. The last two games I thought I skated really well. Sometimes I don’t notice that I had two big injuries. Playing more and more will help.”
The Kings may have under-utilized Sturm. After averaging in the area of 16, 17 and 18 minutes per game over the last decade of his NHL career, Sturm’s ice time dwindled to an average of 14:28 a night during his short stint with the Kings. He averaged just 1:11 per night in power play ice time and 34 seconds per contest in shorthanded ice time.
During his days in Boston and San Jose, Sturm was accustomed to playing more than twice as much on both special teams. Asked whether he believes he is still capable of shouldering a larger ice time load that would include significant special teams duty, Sturm did not hesitate.
“Definitely,” the veteran winger declares. “I think that’s what was missing a little bit. I came back and most of the time I didn’t play special teams. It’s hard to get the rhythm going. I like being involved and that’s where I play the best, too.”
Placed on waivers Friday, he was slated to skate on the Kings’ top line in today’s game against Colorado had he not been claimed. Even worse for the Kings, 20-year-old center Andrei Loktionov suffered what appears to be a season-ending upper body injury on Friday night while skating with the AHL’s Manchester Monarchs.
It’s fairly likely that Los Angeles was caught a bit off guard by Washington’s waiver claim.
“They were,” admits Sturm. “I know it was a hard decision. Even for me it was kind of shocking. I was in that position in Boston, too. They probably didn’t think anyone was going to pick me up. One of their young prospects got hurt [Friday night] and might be out for the season so they will have to get someone. I don’t care now. I am all about the Capitals and looking forward to joining the team.”
Sturm’s excellent speed resulted in five penalty shot chances during his five years with the Bruins, the most any player has ever had in the storied history of the Boston franchise. Early in his career, he was known as a defensive-minded player, but he erupted for 21 goals in 2001-02, his fifth full season in the league. That started a spree in which he netted 20 or more for six straight seasons, a streak that was halted by his knee injury in 2008-09.
“Maybe it’s a European thing,” says Sturm of his defensive acumen. “But when I came into the league I got a lot of ice time because I played good defense and had it in my head [to play that way]. I stuck with it but figured out that I could score goals, too.
“Defense wins a lot of championships, but I love scoring goals too. I want to score as much as I can but I have always been a good penalty killer and a solid two-way forward.”
With his contract up at season’s end, Sturm’s career is approaching a crossroads to his career. While some European players relish the chance to go home and finish their playing careers on native soil, Sturm isn’t one of them. He wants to continue playing in the NHL for as long as he can, and believes he still has some good seasons ahead.
“I know it’s been a couple tough years for me,” grants Sturm. “But I believe I still have a lot of years left. I’ve got to stay healthy here. I want to finish my career [in the NHL]. I want to stay here; I love it here. I want to play as long as I can in the NHL.”
Moving from one coast to the other and back in a span of less than three months can’t be an easy task, but Sturm and wife Astrid had yet to move their two children – Mason and Kaydie – to Los Angeles. As it turns out, that’s a good thing now.
“We’re a little lucky because they were still in Boston,” says Sturm. “They are here [in L.A.] right now for a quick visit. We wanted to move them to California in mid-March but thank God we didn’t. Now we’ll keep them in Boston the rest of the year, and they can come down for some visits to Washington.”
Caps defenseman Scott Hannan and Sturm were teammates in San Jose for several seasons, but Hannan’s won’t be the only familiar face to greet Sturm when he arrives in the District this weekend.
“[Caps winger] Matt Bradley was [chosen in] the same draft,” says Sturm, [and we had] the same agent. So I know him very well. And there’s [Caps assistant coach] Dean Evason. A long time ago I went to a summer hockey camp and met him.”
The addition of a left wing might seem somewhat curious from the Caps’ standpoint, but it might enable Washington to move Brooks Laich
– a natural pivot – back to the middle in the event that the trade deadline doesn’t bear any addition fruit for the Capitals. The Caps could ice trios of Alex Ovechkin
and Mike Knuble
flanking Nicklas Backstrom
and could have a second unit of Sturm and Alexander Semin
alongside Laich. The speedy Sturm might also prove to be a good fit with fleet-footed rookie center Marcus Johansson
When he woke up Friday morning, Sturm was a member in good standing of the Los Angeles Kings. On Saturday afternoon, he was hurriedly packing his life, his belongings and his career for a move to Washington, D.C. By Tuesday night, he’ll be sporting a new Caps’ sweater, but he won’t be wearing the No. 19 he wore in San Jose, the No. 16 he wore in Boston, or the No. 10 he sported in Los Angeles.
“I’m leaving in two hours,” says Sturm. “I am trying to pack everything up. I will be in Washington tomorrow and at practice on Monday.”
A scoring starved Caps team will welcome him with open arms.