For the Dallas Stars, including a gritty player like Steve Ott
in the lineup is an important element that can go a long way towards contributing to the club’s success.
When Ott sustained a fractured ankle early last season and missed 62 games because of it, the club missed some of the benefits of having a guy that can provide an energy spark with a big hit, that sticks up for his teammates and maybe even acts as a deterrent to opponents trying to take liberties with the team’s top scorers. Ott finished the year suiting up for only 19 games, although he play six in the post-season.
Completely healthy again in Stars training camp, the 25-year-old Ott endeavors to return to the form that enabled him to register career highs of five goals, 17 assists and 22 points in 2005-06 and continue his development that was so rudely interrupted. He also racked up 178 penalty minutes that season, tied for fifth in the NHL.
Now he finds himself in a fierce battle for, at the very least, ice time minutes, and possibly even a roster spot. So far, Ott has acquitted himself well in two pre-season games and fulfilled his sparkplug role excellently.
In a 6-5 victory over St. Louis in the Stars first pre-season game, Ott lined up at center and was a physical presence, delivering four hits (second on the team), earning a + 1 plus/minus rating, blocking three shots and winning 9-of-18 face-offs in 14:36 of ice time.
“Otter was good (Tuesday) night, Otter was engaged in the game,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said. “He was sick a couple of days before that, but he came in and I thought his line was very good.”
Ott skated with physical wingers Krys Barch and Brad Winchester, who scored the game-winning goal late in the third period after he and Ott won a battle for the puck behind the St. Louis net.
After playing again last Wednesday night in Tampa, Ott sat out the following pre-season match-up with Colorado, a scrappy contest in which Barch got into three fights and Winchester one.
“It’s part of the game,” Tippett said of the pre-season fisticuffs. “You’ve got to have some grit in your lineup, and last year, we went through stretches where those guys were hurt and it’s something we’ve identified this year, we want to have that in our lineup.”
Both Barch and Winchester are somewhat similar to Ott stylistically, and Barch got his big chance the second half of last season to act as the club’s physical enforcer and performed well, while Ott was injured. As a possible fourth line, the trio could be an imposing combination skating together, but they are more likely competing with each other for ice time and slots on the depth chart.
“Otter, we’re hoping he gets into a bigger penalty-killing role,” Tippett said. “We’ll play him at center ice and see how that goes here a little bit. He’s a guy that plays with an edge and is hard to play against. You put a couple of big guys with him and that could be a hard line to play against, just like we saw (Tuesday) night in the game. Otter’s got to be the guy who kind of anchors that in the middle, be strong on face-offs, doing smart things with the puck.”
Adding the responsibilities of a penalty-killer would certainly increase Ott’s value to the team and get him on the ice more, and giving him shorthanded minutes so far in the pre-season is part of evaluating him in that role and allowing him the chance to grab onto it. But again, he is also vying with guys like Barch for a spot on the PK unit, as well.
“I think at this juncture, there’s a whole group of guys that are getting some exposure, some moments out there,” said associate coach Rick Wilson, who is in charge of the penalty killing. “We’ve got a lot people - Barchie is getting a good look at it, Otter needs to get back into that role pretty hard. I think Antti Miettinen, we want to see how he does. So there are a lot of people trying to get maybe some extra ice time in that capacity, in that role.”
“That’s what exhibition (games are) about, giving people key face-offs, giving them key minutes,” Tippett pointed out. “Barchie’s killing penalties there, there’s a lot of things you’re looking at. You almost like the situations when it gets tight, situations that will enhance their growth.”
Ott just wants the opportunity to display his skills, and if he gets that, he believes he’ll be able to shine and earn those extra minutes on the ice.
“I feel good,” Ott said. “So far for the opportunity that I’ve gotten, I’ve done well with it. I’ve played my game, a simple, hard game, and every time I get a little more opportunity, I want to do a little more with it. First of all, you have to get the opportunity to do that first, and that’s why I’m still looking and that’s why there’s still games going on.”
The 6-foot, 193-pound Ott, the Stars’ first-round selection (number 25 overall) in the 2000 NHL Draft, would also like to increase his offensive production. 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. He also played significant roles on Team Canada’s entry in the World Junior Championships in both 2001 and 2002.
Upon turning pro, he concentrated more on improving his defensive play in order to move up the ladder, but there’s no question Ott still has some skill.
“Everyone makes it differently,” Ott said. “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’ve 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, and it is a stepping stone.”
In last Wednesday night’s 4-3 overtime loss in Tampa Bay, Ott showed some of that offensive ability, firing five shots on goal, second on the team, while also playing his usual spirited physical game. He delivered a team-best three hits, blocked one shot and was 8-7 on face-offs in 17:39 of ice time.
“I feel pretty good,” Ott said. “I feel like I’ve prepared all summer for this, and so far, I feel fresh, I feel energized and I feel ready to go.”
If he continues to play like he has throughout camp and the pre-season games, Ott will put himself in excellent position to once again fill a prominent role on the club’s third or fourth line and possibly even on the penalty kill.