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Offensive Spark

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

Since his return from injury about two weeks ago, Dallas Stars forward Steve Ott has maintained a rather high profile for a guy who usually toils on the third forward line. But the feisty agitator has come back with a vengeance, imposing his physical will and altering the complexion of games while also contributing offensively.

After missing three games with an undisclosed ailment, Ott has been outstanding, scoring two goals and two assists in the five games since, registering a +2 plus/minus rating and delivering an impressive 17 hits while aggravating the opposition to distraction.

“Ott’s energy plays a big part for our team,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said. “He’s a hard, physical player. The other team knows when he’s on the ice and it’s not just because he talks to them. He gave us some life.”

His newfound offense has been an added bonus to his usual hard-nosed style. The 6-foot, 193-pound native of Summerside, Prince Edward Island (Canada) has been skating on a line with crafty center Brad Richards, while the other wing has been occupied by Loui Eriksson the past couple of games after fellow pest Sean Avery was deployed there. 

“I think that line, I think if we’re going and we’re moving and doing the right thing,” Ott said, “then yeah, we’re an effective line - we’re scoring, we’re producing. I think we had a lot of opportunities to score. Hopefully, we’ll see how it goes.”

Ott’s first goal of the season, in a 4-2 win over Minnesota on Oct. 29, his first game back, typifies the style he has to play to be effective, namely, going hard to the net and being physical.

With Ott camped in front of the Wild net, Richards threw a backhand pass from behind the goal line into the crease, pinballing off goalie Niklas Backstrom’s skate. The puck lay loose in the crease for a moment before Ott jammed his way in there to nudge it over the line as he was knocked down.

“His presence on the ice is very noticeable from both teams, and for us it’s a big spark,” goaltender Marty Turco said. “You’re talking about intensity and about passion for playing and being hard to play against. He’s always been able to do that in a physical nature, but he’s been able to do that now from an Xs and Os perspective. Highly reliable and he’s worked hard to get himself in this position.”

The 26-year-old Ott, who scored a career-high 11 goals last season and matched his previous best with 22 points, has flashed offensive potential ever since he was selected by the Stars in the first round (25th overall) of the 2000 NHL Entry Draft, but hasn’t often put it to consistent use as he has recently. 

A prolific scorer in junior hockey, Ott scored 50 goals and 87 points in 55 games for Windsor of the OHL in 2000-01 and followed that up with 43 goals and 88 points in 53 contests the next year skating on a line with Ottawa Senators’ star Jason Spezza. He also played significant roles on Team Canada’s entry in the World Junior Championships in both 2001 and 2002.

Upon turning pro in 2002-03, he concentrated more on improving his defensive play in order to move up the ladder, but there’s no question Ott has some skill.

“Everyone makes it differently,” said Ott, who has also played 110 career AHL games in addition to his 283 NHL contests. “For myself, I still think that’s something I want to work on in this league and become a contributor in the points department. At the time, there’s an energy-type game that I played, it was always there as well, but when you separate yourself from junior to pro, to the AHL to the NHL, there’s steps you have to take.”

“He’s been a guy that’s scored in the past,” added captain Brenden Morrow. “In juniors, he scored a lot with Spezza and I think every year, confidence is a big thing and when he gets the opportunities, he can kind of feel it out. He’s got some good speed, some good energy, he’s gotten a breakaway or two here or there, and he can find the back of the net. I think confidence is a big thing with him, he’s getting more and more of it every year.” 

Ott was a particularly focal point in the Stars’ game in Boston Nov. 1, delivering crunching bodycheck after crunching check while clearly infuriating several Bruins in the process, drawing at least one power play. But in the third period, Ott was assessed a 10-minute misconduct with less than 10 to play and watched the end of the 5-1 defeat from the tunnel leading to the dressing room.

Like Turco’s penchant for playing the puck, which greatly aids the Dallas defense in clearing the zone but every once in a while leads to a costly goal against, the benefits of Ott’s agitating style usually far outweigh the detriments. To his credit, he recognizes where he has to draw the line.

“I think it all starts with competing, it all starts with battling,” Ott said of his game. “My job is to try to bring guys along into battle and if guys don’t want to be in battle, then they’re obviously in the wrong sport. And for me, that’s what I do. If it’s antagonistic or instigating, no, I compete, I battle. Does it make other guys mad? Well, probably, yeah. Do I get jumped twice because I hit guys? Well, hitting’s part of the game. Am I going to change my style? No. 

“But the other side of it, getting wrapped around with fans and referees, or wasting that needless energy on that part of the game is where our team doesn’t need us to be. Our team needs our energy on the ice, around the goal, in other guys’ faces, hitting guys, and that’s where our energy needs to be focused on.”

“Energy that is just reckless and in the abyss doesn’t do much,” Tippett added. “I thought Steve Ott was a very good player the first two periods (of the Boston game). Now, the third period, he got a 10-minute misconduct for yapping - there’s a perfect example, and Otter knows that he has to walk that line. He has to be a player that is engaged in the game physically, in the one-on-one battles and getting to the net. When he does that, he’s a very good player. When he gets a 10-minute misconduct and gets kicked out of the game, he’s not much good to us.” 

The good news is that Ott is usually in control of his emotions and is smart about his aggressiveness, so he’s been effective a lot lately. Besides his gritty physical play and the aforementioned offensive contributions, Ott has been a solid penalty killer this season, while also leading the club in face-off winning percentage, going 37-31 (54.4 percent) on draws. His average of over 16 minutes of ice time in the five games since his return to the lineup, a significant increase from his career-high average of 14:28 last season, also speaks to how valuable he’s been lately.

With his rambunctious style, it’s not so surprising that Ott has suffered his share of injuries and has suited up for more than 73 games in a season just once in his six-year career. Now he just needs to stay healthy in order to keep building on his recent performance. 

“He’s had some injuries,” Turco noted. “He’s had a lot of time to think about what he wants to do with his career, and he’s been taking some huge steps forward and every time he is out, he comes back seemingly better than ever. We’d love him to stay healthy and consistent and playing like that.”

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