You don’t necessarily try to amass 200 penalty minutes. If you go to the tough areas on the ice, stick up for teammates, use your body to make room for your line mates, play with a fearless style, it often just happens.
Steve Downie is willing to do that dirty work every game. He’ll take a shot to deliver a better one.
But “Downs” or “Diggitty”, as he is called around the Lightning locker room, is proving he is much more than a tough guy. The skill and productivity he had through juniors is now translating to the NHL loud and clear, so much so that he has earned a spot in an exclusive club of physical forces who could also fill the scoresheet.
Downie joined Theo Fleury, Keith Tkachuk, Chris Gratton and his coach Rick Tocchet as the only players who have had at least 20 goals and 200 penalty minutes in a season since 1992-93.
“Those are great players,” said Downie, acquired from Philadelphia last season. “Just to be mentioned in that category is a pretty exciting thing for me.”
Downie, who turns 23 on April 3, said he has a ways to go and there is a lot of work he can do, but he still expects himself to continue his offensive output (at 21 goals and 24 assists entering Tuesday’s game against Columbus) for a long time.
Anyone who has watched him this season would agree. His ability to control and shield the puck has helped set up teammates, he battles his way to the net at 6-foot, 200 pounds and his shot continues to improve. If you’re looking for an example just look at his rocket to the top shelf that beat Patrick Lalime this past Saturday in Buffalo.
“Downs was always a top point guy in juniors and he scored in the World Junior Championships,” line-mate Steven Stamkos said. “He really didn’t get an opportunity in Philly. He’s getting it now and people are going to start to notice and respect him, not only for what he can do physically but what he can do offensively.”
Downie never could find his footing last season after the trade. He had three goals and three assists with Tampa Bay, but ended his season in the minors. He dedicated himself to a workout plan with Lightning Strength and Conditioning Coach Chuck Lobe in the off season and came back to training camp in the best shape of his career. Tocchet said Downie totally changed his off-ice habits.
“He has come a long way,’” Tocchet said. “The credit goes to him. Everything we’ve asked, he’s done.”
This summer, Downie is planning to join Stamkos and work out with former NHL standout Gary Roberts. Roberts and Stamkos worked together this past summer, which is one of many reasons Stamkos is now in the NHL’s three-man scoring race.
Downie is out on the ice sometimes 15-20 minutes before practice working on his shot, often with Tocchet and assistant coach Adam Oates. The Newmarket, Ontario native said he couldn’t put it into words how the coaching staff has helped. It’s little things here, little things there. He has become a sponge.
“They’ve been great to me,” said Downie, who leads the team in plus/minus at plus-15 entering Tuesday’s game in Columbus. “They’ve given me a chance to play and have a good way of handling me. When I get a little emotional out there, they settle me down and keep my focus on the right things. I’m an emotional player. I feed off of it. I don’t think I can change that.”
Tocchet said he has had to grab Downie on the bench to calm him down. He knows when “the kettle is about to boil over.” He won’t stop teaching, talking to him, daily.
His role is far from scripted. Downie knows that and his coach does, too. Tocchet had at least 21 goals and 147 penalty minutes in 10 of his seasons as a player. He had 48 goals and 252 penalty minutes in 1992-93, while playing with Mario Lemieux in Pittsburgh, one of his three 20/200 seasons.
“Most of his penalties are aggressive penalties and I have no problem with them,” Tocchet said. “Sometimes there are things we need to clean up. But to be on the edge like he is and still put the puck in the net is impressive. I’d like to have a few Steve Downies on the team.”
Downie has scored many of his goals where Tocchet did - in front of the net.
“If you consistently go to the net hard and push and shove with defensemen, guys will back off,” Tocchet said. “They will give you that extra yard. That is why sometimes Downs will get that goal. I try to preach to guys, keep going there, keep engaged. That’s one of the reasons he has 20 goals.”
Downie must still battle the mistakes he made in the past, which led to suspensions in the NHL and AHL. But Stamkos said he has earned respect around the locker room, always standing up for teammates. He has also become a fan favorite.
Whether it is the coaching staff, a veteran all-star like Marty St. Louis or an emerging role model like Stamkos, Downie is watching, listening, learning.
St. Louis said Downie is a great kid, who wants to be a factor and leaves everything on the ice.
“He still has a lot of [penalty minutes] and we’ve talked to him about that,” St.Louis said. “If he wants to take another step in this league, he’s going to have to stay out of the box. It’s a hard game to play, the way he plays, with a lot of heart and passion. You don’t want to take anything away, but he’s a player who is effective on the ice. When he’s in the penalty box, he’s not effective for us.”
Tocchet told Downie recently that he could wear a letter on his jersey someday, and that he should strive to be a leader.
“Twenty goals is a big accomplishment for him,” St. Louis said. “He’s setting the bar for himself. When you do that, you have responsibilities. You’re counted on. I’m looking forward to seeing his progress moving forward. I think he took a big stride this year.”