SUNRISE, Fla. – When the Flyers arrive in Tampa tomorrow in preparation for their game Wednesday night against the Lightning, all the attention will be on the homecoming for Vinny Lecavalier.
Amidst all that hullaballoo, it’s a good bet that Steve Downie will steal off down the hallway to go chat with Lightning captain Martin St. Louis.
After all, it was St. Louis who Downie credits as the guy who showed him how to mature and play the right way in hockey.
“As you get older and learn the game you mature as a player,” Downie said. “When I came up with Philly, it was a tough lineup to break into but I played the role even though I didn’t get much ice. When I got traded to Tampa I was given more of an opportunity and I got to play with some great players.
“Marty helped me out a lot. When you get the opportunity to be around great players, you can’t help but get better.”
Tampa was where Downie went from being an agitator and a discipline problem to being a more responsible and talented player.
In his first full NHL season, Downie scored 22 goals and added 24 assists for the Lightning and kept up that pace the next two seasons with Tampa and Colorado before blowing out his ACL in the second game of the season with the Avalanche in 2012-13.
Back healthy, he was playing on the Colorado top line where he had seven points in 12 games with the hot starting Avs when he was traded to the Flyers in exchange for Max Talbot.
Since he’s been back, Downie has posted six points in seven games and turned what was essentially a third line with Sean Couturier and Matt Read into a dangerous two-way line.
“I find that he gets the puck a lot and has guys coming toward him,” Read said. “So you have to get to open spots for him and he’ll give you the puck back. He knows how to create that space out there. I can’t say enough about him. It’s been fun playing with him and he’s getting better every game.”
Coming off the concussion and facial injuries suffered in a fight with Aaron Volpatti in his first game back with the Flyers on Nov. 1, Downie has provided consistent production, picking up assists in five of the six games since his return.
“He’s definitely helped [that line],” coach Craig Berube said. “When we put him there I knew he would help create more offensive chances. He’s very good with the puck down low. He makes plays and sees the ice very well.”
It was a trait in Downie that was first noticed by general manager Paul Holmgren when he was the assistant general manager to Bob Clarke and was scouting junior players for the upcoming draft.
At the time the Flyers drafted Downie No. 29 overall in the 2005 NHL entry draft, many pundits considered him a reach.
Holmgren though, at the time, said he had “a little Rick Tocchet in him.”
Through 292 career games Downie is slightly behind Tocchet, but not by much, and considering this is technically his fourth team, and Tocchet played every one of those 292 games with the Flyers – and in an era when there was significantly more scoring than there is today - it’s not a horrible comparison.
Here are those numbers:
Downie: 56 goals, 95 assists, 151 points, 715 penalty minutes.
Tocchet: 90 goals, 109 assists, 199 points, 1,102 penalty minutes.
“The difference is he’s matured and isn’t the loose cannon he once was as a young kid,” Holmgren said about Downie. “There’s a calmness about his game. He doesn’t get enough credit for how good he is as a player as far as talent and skill and how he sees the ice… When you get a competitive tough kid like that it’s huge.”
Which is what made this trade so one-sided in favor of the Flyers.
“When we had him here before we really liked him,” Berube said. “We traded him for a defenseman who was a good defenseman – Matt Carle – that played well for us. There’s reasons you make trades sometimes and we all liked [Downie] and we still did and we’re happy we were able to get him back. It’s not that we didn’t like Max Talbot it’s just that [Downie] adds offense and grit and he’s a Flyers-type player.”
That shouldn’t be interpreted as a guy who plays with his fists first and with his head second. But rather playing smart and with an edge.
Read called him a smart player. Berube called him a smart player. When asked if his on-ice intelligence was underrated, Holmgren said Downie’s reputation clouds the true description of his game.
“Without a doubt it does,” he said. “Everyone just thinks [Downie’s] a knucklehead, but he’s not. He’s a good player.”
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