There's little doubt that Mark Streit
has established himself as a premier NHL defenseman. Two seasons ago, some wondered if the Swiss blueliner was an NHL defenseman at all.
But New York Islanders
GM Garth Snow
watched Streit closely during the latter's final season with the Montreal Canadiens
in 2007-08, when Streit was being used as a defenseman and a spare forward. Snow liked what he saw -- so much so that he offered Streit a five-year deal when the free-agency market opened that July 1, with the promise that he'd be used strictly as a defenseman. It ended up being arguably the best signing by any club that summer.
"I finished up the year in Montreal and I didn't really know what was going to happen," Streit told NHL.com. "I had no clue going into free agency. Once I realized that it wasn't going to be Montreal, I knew the Islanders kind of liked me and they were checking me out. For me, one of the biggest things was that I got the opportunity to play as a defenseman. In Montreal I was a part-time forward. That wasn't always easy. I wanted to be a full-time defenseman and the Islanders gave me a great opportunity. I established myself as a defenseman. I think I've proved them wrong up there (Montreal)."
A ninth-round draft choice (No. 262) by the Canadiens in 2004, Streit didn't reach the NHL until 2005, when he was 28. He had just 2 goals and 9 assists in 48 games in 2005-06, but his production increased to 36 points in 76 games the following season. But not even a 62-point campaign in 2007-08 was enough to convince then-GM Bob Gainey to bring Streit back a fourth season in Montreal. Streit, though, has no hard feelings.
"I'm thankful to the Canadiens … they gave me the opportunity to play in the NHL," Streit said. "They drafted me, they gave me a contract and I established myself in the League, even if it was as a forward and a defenseman. It was a great opportunity to play for the Habs. It's a great organization. I thought maybe there was a chance I'd stay up there, but they didn't have the full confidence in me that I could play as a defenseman. For me, I'm a heart-and-soul defenseman. I was really happy and pleased when the Islanders called. They believed in me. I'm very grateful for this situation."
The fact that Streit was being used at two different positions in his free-agent season probably had some GM's shying away from signing him in the summer of 2008. Snow, though, jumped on the opportunity to lure Streit to Long Island, where he'd never have to be a forward again.
"We viewed him as a defenseman, where many other teams and organizations probably viewed him as a forward," Snow said. "I think we probably benefited from the fact that when we played him leading up to free agency, that team was in a position where they had injuries and he was playing defense. We were comfortable bringing him in and giving him the opportunity to prove full-time to the rest of the hockey world that he was a top-four defenseman.
"At the time, we were excited and happy to have him. To this day, he's a special player. I know our fans are very happy we did that that July 1."
In his two seasons with the Islanders, Streit has 105 points in 156 games and spends nearly half of each game on the ice. He's also an alternate captain and continues to lead by example while the Islanders continue the rebuilding process. It's a role Streit has learned to relish.
"I'm one of the older guys, and I like the role as a leader," he said. "I want to do that. But first things first -- I've got to do my job on the ice. I want to lead by example on the ice. If there's something, I'm going to speak up. If you have to scream, you have to scream. But you have to stay positive and cheer up the guys and help the younger guys a little bit. If things don't go well, sometimes you've got to get a little loud."
Streit will receive a ton of playing time again for the Islanders in 2010-11, but he's going to have a lot more help this time around. Snow spent this past summer shoring up the Isles' blue line, as he signed Mark Eaton
and Milan Jurcina
as free agents and acquired James Wisniewski
from the Anaheim Ducks
. The Streit-Wisniewski pairing is primed to be one of the strongest in the Atlantic Division.
"With the depth that we were able to get, it's going to be huge," Isles coach Scott Gordon
said. "When you look at how we finished the year, Mark was asked to play close to 30 minutes a night. That should never be the situation unless we were desperately trying to score some goals late in the game and we were trying to double-shift him. But he's still going to play a lot of minutes … he'll probably lead all our defensemen in minutes."
"We have way more depth on the back end," Streit said. "It makes it so much easier for everybody. It's good. There's eight guys, more or less, and then you have some young players in Bridgeport (AHL) who are good prospects. It's a good atmosphere. You have to fight for your spot. I think that's healthy."
Second-year pro John Tavares
told NHL.com he was blown away by the contributions Streit made to the Islanders in 2009-10 -- so much so that he believes it's about time he started to receive some more recognition from those who vote for League awards.
"You look at not only his numbers, but what we ask him to do every night," Tavares said. "It was a lot on him, but I think the additions Garth made are going to take a lot off his shoulders this year and let him focus a little bit more on the offensive side of the game. Playing in the Olympics, you saw what he can do. The numbers he puts up are tremendous. Every year, he definitely has to be talked about for being a Norris Trophy winner. He's right up there and one of the best in the League. He's a guy that's always been under the radar. I think the last few years, he's really shown he's one of the elite in the game."
Streit not only enjoys the budding excitement surrounding the Isles' organization, but he also loves everything Long Island has to offer. Not only are some of the nation's most beautiful beaches just minutes from his home, but Streit also has one of the biggest cities on the planet at his fingertips.
"You live right by New York (City), which is probably the most exciting city in the world. Being able to go to New York on the train in 30 minutes and experience that, it's great," Streit said. "If you want things to be more quiet, you go back to Long Island. It's green. It's like Switzerland for me. I tell my family and friends that back home. It's beautiful here."
"In Montreal I was a part-time forward. That wasn't always easy. I wanted to be a full-time defenseman and the Islanders gave me a great opportunity. I established myself as a defenseman. I think I've proved them wrong up there." -- Mark Streit
But Snow has experienced difficulty luring other free agents due to the outdated Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, which is in dire need of a makeover or a replacement. Streit, however, believes there is another solution.
"All we need is winning," he said. "We need to put a winning team together. There's some hard-core hockey fans on Long Island. People love hockey around here. When we win a little bit, they'll come out to the Coliseum. But living here is great. The organization treats its players really, really well. It's a pleasure to come to the rink every morning."
And with a healthy goalie Rick DiPietro
now in the mix, combined with the drafting of fellow Swiss native Nino Niederreiter
with the fifth pick of the 2010 Entry Draft and the additions Snow made on the blue line this summer, Streit is confident the Islanders can qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since he arrived.
"It's hard to believe it's already my sixth season in the NHL," Streit said. "It passes so fast. It's crazy how the time flies. It's been fun so far. We have a young group of guys. The past few years weren't always easy, but last year we improved a lot. We want to take another big step forward this season."
Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL