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Abrasive Ott continues evolution into offensive force

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

The Dallas Stars’ six-game winning streak may have come to an end Monday night in Columbus, but after the gritty way they battled all night, exemplified by the outstanding performance from forward Steve Ott, it’s difficult to be too disappointed with the shootout loss.

Steve Ott Highlights
The 28-year-old agitator was both a physical, abrasive force as well as a dangerous offensive threat almost every time he stepped on the ice, continuing a trend that has been a large part of the Stars’ recent success.

As it is, the eight-year veteran has totaled four points (three goals, one assist) over the last five contests, without sacrificing any of his trademark rough-and-tumble, antagonistic fervor that has defined his game since Dallas selected him in the first round (25th overall) in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft.

“He’s an important guy for our team,” General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk said. “I think every team would like to have a guy like Steve Ott on their team and we’re fortunate that we do. I think he’s realizing that his importance is evolving, too. He’s not a guy that just runs around and agitates any more, he’s a guy that we rely on to get scoring chances, to put the puck on the net, to create offense and he’s very capable of that. I don’t think he’s reached his full potential yet and that’s a good thing. For him, it’s all about energy and hard work and he has to play close to that edge. He’s the type of guy that’s a really valuable player for us.”

The current hot streak leaves the 6-foot-0, 192-pound Ott with seven goals and 12 points on the season. In addition to his eye-opening finesse (in two of the last three games, he’s scored sniper’s goals, not the jam-in-the-rebound type one might expect), Ott has maintained his usual level of agitation, dishing out 79 hits (second on the squad) and compiling a team-high 47 penalty minutes through the first 27 games.

The versatile forward has played both left wing and center, has skated on a more offensive-oriented line with young sniper Jamie Benn for extended periods, while also excelling alongside fellow grinders Adam Burish and Brandon Segal the last few games.

For a club looking to get back to the post-season after missing the playoffs twice in a row, Ott’s ability to mix it up physically, contribute on the power play, provide shut-down defense on the penalty kill or win a crucial face-off has been an important factor in the club’s outstanding 16-9-2 record. He’s also been strong in the face-off circle, winning a team-high 53.7 percent of his draws (160 of 298), including a crucial face-off in his own zone in the final minute Monday night.
“I want to keep the competitive side of my game intact and hopefully that will never change, because that’s kind of what built my foundation as a player,” Ott said. “But also getting an opportunity to play on the power play and in certain situations with skill guys definitely helps to contribute to your points and statistical stuff.” 

“He does have that combination of being able to play a robust style and being able to get under the skin of the opposition,” said Stars coach Marc Crawford. “He’s not a lot of fun to play against and he’s a pretty good player. His read is pretty good and certainly, he’s got a terrific ability to dig in and battle.”

Since he added the more offensive dimension to his repertoire during the 2008-09 season, Ott has been a fairly streaky point producer, one last area that the coaching staff would like to see him improve upon.  For example, while his current performance has been outstanding, Ott has also had no less than four different stretches this season where he went three straight games without a point. 

“We’ve never doubted his ability to raise to the level of the emotion of the game,” Crawford pointed out. “He’s got to continue with his execution in all areas of the game, getting to be more consistent game-to-game. You notice the high games from him, but we’d like to see that high game from him a little more often and that’s the step that he’s at in his career, that hopefully he keeps developing in that way.” 

It seems like he’s on the right track to do just that. Even so, Ott has come a long way in just a couple of years, from the gutsy fourth-line agitator he established himself as earlier in his career. Then he flourished in Year 6, when the combination of some injuries to other players and a broken hand that prevented him from fighting led to an opportunity to skate alongside playmaking center Mike Ribeiro and log some power play time. The two demonstrated impressive chemistry, and Ott, forced to refine his antagonistic edge a bit because of the injury, scored 19 goals and 46 points in just 64 games that year, and has filled that hybrid role ever since.

“I think the main thing is getting that opportunity and staying with it,” said Ott, who is in the first season of a four-year contract worth $11.8 million ($2.95 million per year). “And when you’re playing with great players such as (leading scorer Brad) Richards on the power play, he’s going to make great passes to you, and if you don’t bury them, you’re going to be back off it. It’s definitely the extra opportunity.”

“I think he’s certainly tried to tone it down a little, actually tried to, because he is such a valuable player and can be used in more offensive situations,” noted scrappy forward Brian Sutherby. “And at times, I’m sure he doesn’t want to have to turn the other cheek and would love to get his nose even more dirty in situations that he’s in. Certainly, he is more disciplined, but he’s also managed to maintain that high level of intensity that he’s always had.”

After scoring a career-high 22 goals and 36 points last season, while still delivering 251 hits, second on the club and seventh in the NHL, and racking up a team-leading 153 penalty minutes, good for 14th in the league, Ott’s progression into a more complete and a more valuable player has moved up another notch.

Many fans may not realize it, but much of Ott’s determination and work ethic comes from his father Butch, who coached him all the way up through the youth ranks. In fact, Butch Ott, who continued coaching in Junior A and B leagues in Ontario after Steve turned pro, is such a respected judge of talent, he has been employed as an amateur scout by the Stars for the past four-plus years now.

“He was an extremely hard critic growing up,” Ott said smiling. “A lot of verbal beatings later on about hockey probably helped me toughen up about life as well, and that’s kind of the biggest thing I can take out of it - he definitely installed a work ethic in me that I’ve carried to today.”

Ott was born in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, but moved as a baby, noting that, as a military kid, he grew up “all over the place,” before finally settling in Windsor, Ontario as he headed into high school. But while his dad was always his coach, Ott never received favorable treatment. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

“It was definitely a lot of long car rides home from games, but he was very fair and it was great to have such an involved father in my life,” Ott recalled. “It was definitely a lot of bumping heads and whatnot, but I definitely owe my career to him.”

That intensity and fierce desire to work as hard as it takes has also been rubbing off on his teammates, as Ott has assumed a bit more of a leadership role in the dressing room, and he’s noticed the difference.

“I think I’ve seen a change,” Ott admitted. “I play that shift-disturbing role or whatever you want to call it as much as I can and we want to be a team, especially this year, that battles for each other, that competes for each other and sticks up for each other. The way that we work now, as a hard-working team, we’re going to annoy a lot of teams and guys are going to be sticking up for each other a lot, so it’s irritating to play against any time you have a competitive team.”

Seeing those qualities in abundance up and down the lineup has Ott optimistic for the club’s future prospects.

“I truly believe this is the hardest-working team I’ve ever played on, in eight years as a Dallas Star,” Ott said. “All the lines are working extremely hard, the D, the goalie - when you have a team that doesn’t quit, you’re always going to be in games. We find a way to scratch and claw and rip some skin apart every night.”

With number 29 right in the thick of it each time.

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