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Ott developing into much more than just an agitator

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

Despite a disappointing season in which the Dallas Stars missed the playoffs for the second straight season, the first time that’s happened since the franchise was in Minnesota, it’s not too hard to find some positives for the club.

Photo Gallery: Steve Ott
Video: Ott Highlights
Video: More Highlights
Video: 2000 Ott Draft Video
Video: Steve Ott Goals
One major bright spot was the continued maturation of forward Steve Ott, who recorded a career-high 22 goals, while also growing into a valuable leader in the dressing room.

His outstanding season has been recognized by others around the hockey world, as Ott was selected to join Team Canada for the upcoming World Championships in Germany, which begin on May 7.

He also earned a four-year contract extension worth $11.8 million ($2.95 million per year) from the Stars. There had been some speculation earlier in the year that Ott might be dealt at the trade deadline rather than lose him as an unrestricted free agent in July, but on March 1, just two days before the deadline, Ott signed on the dotted line to remain in Dallas.

Steve Ott has spent his entire NHL career with the Dallas Stars and we wanted to continue that relationship,” said Stars General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk. “He is the type of player that we want on our team. Steve has become a versatile offensive player and he makes us a harder team to play against. We are excited to have him in a Stars uniform for the next four years.”

“It was pretty nerve-racking to not know if I was going to be traded or stay here,” Ott said. “The commitment that the team has shown me is definitely a great feeling. It’s a very exciting time for myself and it means a lot to be able to stay here.”

Perhaps the most impressive part of his evolution into a reliable go-to player is that Ott has not sacrificed his abrasive, agitating ways in the process, as evidenced by his team-high 153 penalty minutes and the fact that he dished out 251 hits this season, second on the club and seventh in the entire league. 

“He does have that combination of being able to play a robust style and being able to get under the skin of the opposition,” Stars coach Marc Crawford said. “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.”

“I think it’s easier to agitate when you can score goals,” said Ott, who recorded 36 points this season. “There’s nothing worse you can say to a player than scoring a goal. There’s no words, there’s no better chirps than when you score a goal and it’s that guy scoring. So, me personally, I think I need that in my game, I think it helps me to continue to stay mentally sharp out there as well.”

In fact, not only do the two components of his game go hand-in-hand, but the 27-year-old Ott believes that his offensive contributions are a direct result of his pestering ways on the ice.

“I think if I’m not physical, I’m not creating anything out there in scoring chances,” said the 6-foot, 195-pound native of Summerside, Prince Edward Island, a small province on the Atlantic coast of Canada. “And conversely, I think scoring chances come from physical play. Myself, having to drive the net, being around the hard areas of the game, definitely help my game out and if I’m not doing that, that’s when I’m at my worst. For me to be engaged and playing hard and physical, it seems like it has a definite affect on the scoresheet too.”

While he had established himself as an offensive force in junior hockey, Ott took some time to develop that aspect of his game at the NHL level. After scoring 50 goals and 87 points in 55 games for Windsor of the OHL in 2000-01, and 43 goals and 88 points in 53 games the next year, he compiled just 21 goals and 67 points in 273 games over his first five seasons with the Stars. 

But when he got a chance to step into a more prominent role last year following Brenden Morrow’s season-ending knee injury, Ott flourished offensively and delivered 19 goals and 46 points in 64 games. 

“He got that opportunity last year and really grabbed hold of it,” said forward Brian Sutherby, a longtime friend and frequent linemate. “You just see his game growing immensely. You watch him out there, I’m sure his numbers could have been a lot higher offensively. He still continues to be that guy that gives our team life and is always going 100 miles an hour and is in people’s faces, always talking and making noise out there. And the fact that he’s been able to add that offensive side of his game and continue to still be that guy, he’s been a great player for us.”

“We all saw what he was capable of last year, he put up some big numbers, so he knows and we all know what he can do on the scoresheet,” added forward Toby Petersen, another regular linemate this past season. “It’s good to see. A lot of players, when they’re physically engaged and they’re getting in on the forecheck and stuff like that, it makes you engaged in all aspects of the game. It’s very true of him - when he’s hitting, he’s also putting up points.”

Ott seemed to have some difficulty finding his way early in the season under Crawford’s new system, often being utilized in a more defensive, checking role.  Through the first 31 games he played (missing four due to injury and two because of a league suspension), Ott had totaled just four goals and nine points, including a rough 13-game point drought. 

But he gradually started to elevate his game around Christmas and Stars fans began to recognize the Ott from last season more and more. He enjoyed a much better second half of the season and finished strong, racking up seven goals in the last eight games, including his first career hat trick March 31 in a 5-1 win over San Jose.

“I think the league starts changing after Christmas and becomes more competitive and I think it fits more into my personal style of play a little bit better,” Ott said of his improved performance in the second half. “The intensity picks up, the competitiveness picks up and you have to make sure your game’s going or you kind of get left behind. The main thing is, I love to compete and when guys compete harder, it just seems like it’s easier to get ramped up. And when your team’s fighting for a playoff spot, every guy’s battling out there.”

Ott’s ability to play all three forward positions has allowed Crawford to deploy him in a variety of spots, from checking line center to scoring winger, not to mention duty on both the power play and penalty killing units.

“Playing left wing, center and right wing, just the experience that I’ve gained throughout the years of playing those different positions, playing on bottom lines, on top lines and in the press box, I think the combination of the experience helps me out a lot.,” said Ott, the Stars’ first-round selection (25th overall) in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft. “Now that I’m older - I don’t know about wiser - but just maybe gained a little bit of confidence by knowing that I can do the job, if it’s left wing, right wing or center.”

His eight power play goals were a career-high this year and he matched his personal best with two game-winners. Ott also won a sparkling 56.8  percent of his face-offs (200-of-352), best on the squad and 12th in the NHL among players who took at least 300 draws. That he’s grown into such an important player in so many areas can’t help but inspire his teammates, especially with the passion he brings to the table.

“He’s a core guy in our group,” Crawford said. “You don’t find players that play with a passion like Steve Ott. He’s a very popular teammate. He’s also a very good player. He’s intelligent, he can play on the power play, he’s smart enough that he can kill penalties, he digs in for face-offs, and he has a lot of push back in his game.”

“He’s not the biggest guy in the world and yet he’s out there punishing defensemen on the forecheck and just drilling guys and it gets everyone going,” Petersen noted. “It makes us all realize that no matter how big you are or how small you are, you should be out there trying to play a similar style. It’s key for us to have him on the ice.”

That further demonstrates how Ott has matured into a significant leader for the Stars in the dressing room. As a very vocal guy not afraid to speak his mind, Ott leads both by example and with his words.

“Obviously, he’s always been a major contributor on the ice and a major energy guy,” Petersen said. “Everyone kind of follows his lead when he goes out there and chirping at guys, running guys over and scoring big goals for us. He’s always been a locker room guy, too - he’s such a vocal guy. It’s no secret that our locker room at times can be a little quiet, but Otter’s in there always livening things up.”

The likely departures of longtime Star icons Mike Modano, Jere Lehtinen and Marty Turco will undoubtedly leave a leadership void next season, and Ott is one player expected to step up and fill that role even more.

“For sure, if there’s going to be a possible turning of the older guard, I think myself and others have been here long enough now to step into the new roles and the new situations,” said Ott, who wore an ‘A’ on his jersey this season. “So I think it’s looked upon that we have to do it collectively and grab some leadership together to make up for the old leaders that were here.”

“I really believe that a guy like Steve Ott is going to help (captain) Brenden Morrow grab this team now,” Nieuwendyk said. “It’s been a difficult season that way because of the questions surrounding Mike Modano’s future, because of the questions surrounding Marty Turco’s future -  it’s tough when you have barnacles like that, that are difficult situations. It’s hard to mesh it all together. But I think that Brenden is a quality person and a hard-working guy that has been a great captain here for many years. He’s going to need help, he’s going to need Brad Richards, he’s going to need all those guys, Stephane Robidas, Loui Eriksson, they’re quiet leaders, but Steve Ott is a guy to me, that will really help Brenden grab this team.” 

It’s yet another step forward for the high-intensity agitator who has grown into a core piece of the Stars’ puzzle and will have even more of an impact on the club’s fortunes next season. 

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