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Ray Of Sunshine

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

While the Dallas Stars’ 2008-09 season ended with the club missing the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and just the third time in 15 seasons here, there were plenty of positive developments that bode well for the future.

Steve Ott Highlights
One such ray of sunshine through the bitter disappointment was the breakout season encountered by forward Steve Ott. The feisty agitator enjoyed an enhanced role on the team’s top line and proved to be an offensive revelation. 

When captain Brenden Morrow suffered a season-ending knee injury in late November, Stars coach Dave Tippett opted to install the similarly-abrasive Ott in Morrow’s slot on a line with crafty center Mike Ribeiro. Ott, a native of Summerside, PEI in Canada, responded to the additional responsibility by posting career-highs in all offensive categories.

“That was the thinking with putting Ott there, as a similar kind of player,” Tippett verified. “He’s bringing a lot of the same attributes to the game that Brenden does on that line - hard around the net, coming up with loose pucks. Since Ott has been with Ribeiro, I’ve thought the two of them have played very well together. They feed off each other pretty well.”

His emergence as a top-line contributor was a key to the Stars’ recovery from a poor start and established Ott as much more than just a guy who could play physical and fight. In 64 games, Ott registered 19 goals and 46 points, both ranking fourth on the team, while averaging 17:34 of ice time per game. His exemplary performance has him - and his teammates - excited about what they will have next year when both he and Morrow are healthy.

“First off, I got a ton of opportunity this year to play, obviously, with Ribeiro and in situations that I haven’t played in before,” acknowledged Ott, who will be 27 when next season starts. “And next year we’re going to have healthy wingers with Morrow back and everybody else and I think it just makes our team that much better. For myself, goals and assists-wise, I just want to help contribute again and be a part of a good team and that’s something that we’re going to have next year, is a good team with a bunch of strong players ready to go.”

“That was a big help this year, a big turning point for me personally and for him,” noted Ribeiro, who ended up leading the club in scoring for the third consecutive season with 78 points, of his partnership with Otter. “He showed that he can play every night. It’s a hard job that he has to do and I think he did it pretty well. It’s just nice to see that we’re going to have a guy like that next year and hopefully he’ll bring the same leadership that he brought this year for us. Hopefully, we can stay healthy and have all those leaders in the room, show us the way to win and I think he did that for us this year.”

Perhaps it is only a coincidence, but Ott, the supreme agitator who would never hesitate to drop the gloves, truly began to emerge as an offensive force primarily after he returned in mid-December from an 11-game absence due to a broken hand. With nine screws and a plate surgically reinforcing his right hand, the 6-foot, 195-pound Ott had to wear a cast on the ice, and therefore, was unable to punch. 

Ott seemed to become more effective, drawing penalties from opponents retaliating to his agitating and by not ending up in the penalty box himself. His total of 135 penalty minutes this season represents the lowest of his six-year NHL career - which, for a guy who tied for fifth in the league with 178 in 2005-06, is a significant development.

While Ott denies that there was a correlation between his personal ban on fighting and his offensive awakening, he does acknowledge the experience proved a point for him.

“Probably being able to say no, that probably taught me a bigger lesson, turning down fights when before I was like, ‘Okay, when, where and let’s do it,’” admitted Ott, who finally removed the cast and fought again late in the season. “I think now to see myself play more than sitting in the penalty box definitely opened my eyes up a little bit and that will be something that I’ll have in the back of my mind for next year as well.”

His linemate Ribeiro, however, thought there might have been a connection between Ott’s emergence and his inability to participate in fisticuffs.

“Probably a little bit. I’m sure when you take that out of your mind, maybe you can become a player like that,” Ribeiro said. “You don’t need to fight, he’s not a heavyweight. If he can disturb teams and play the way he’s been playing, put some points on the board, I think it’s just going to help the team. Now that we know he can do that, people will expect that and I’m sure he’s going to be ready next year to do the same thing.”

One other factor contributing to Ott’s increased importance to the club was his reliability as a leader on the ice and in the dressing room, wearing an ‘A’ on his jersey for the first time.

“I think it was a huge honor,” Ott said of being named an alternate captain. “I’ve been here since I was 20 years old, and to watch the good leaders that I had, starting with Derian Hatcher and guys with that kind of presence, is something I wanted to take with a lot of honor and bring on a nightly basis. It was something that I took with a lot of pride and a lot of heart, to wear a letter for the Dallas Stars. Just the respect from the teammates and everybody else, it did mean a lot.” 

“We all knew he was a good player, he just brought his game to a new level this year,” added defenseman Stephane Robidas, who also wore an ‘A’ this year. “He got 19 goals, he would have had over 20 if he didn’t have that hand injury. He’s a big part of our team. The way he plays, he keeps other teams on their toes all the time. They don’t like it when he’s on the ice. It’s fun for me to watch him play, how he’s intense, he gives everything he’s got every game, every shift and that’s what we need.”

To many Stars fans, his sudden offense this year was somewhat of a surprise, but Ott, the Stars’ first-round selection (25th overall) in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft, was initially projected as a proto-typical power forward coming out of junior hockey.

He amassed 43 goals and 88 points in 53 games with Windsor of the OHL in 2001-02 and had 50 goals and 87 points in 55 contests the year before that. Upon turning pro, however, Ott focused primarily on playing physical, trying to throw opponents off their game with incessant yapping and being defensively responsible, while displaying only intermittent flashes of his offensive skills.

Prior to this season, Ott had compiled 21 goals, including none on the power play, and 67 points in 273 career regular season games, before almost matching his goal total with 19 and registering five man-advantage goals.

“I think it’s always something I had that just would never leave,” Ott said. “It’s playing with confidence, it’s playing with a little bit more of a swagger than I would before. It’s the opportunity to play with great hockey players, too, with Ribby and Lehts. Ribeiro’s such a magical player that it’s almost something special every game and you know you’re going to get excellent opportunities every single shift. The hard work and all the other effort that the line puts in, it gets us scoring chances and it’s nice to contribute. I always wanted to envision myself playing this way.”   

“It’s opportunity, too,” Tippett pointed out. “He’s never had an extended period of time on the top line, but the injury to Brenden got him that opportunity and he’s made the most of it.”

Even the captain himself was impressed by Ott’s ability to step up his level of play this season.

Steve Ott, he just keeps getting better and better,” Morrow said. “He’s so much fun to watch, his enthusiasm and his energy. To sit here and watch so many games, that’s one guy I enjoy watching and seeing - he brings it every night.”

Despite the outstanding year he enjoyed, though, Ott, the consummate team player, still considered the season a disappointment because the Stars failed to qualify for the post-season. 

“It’s definitely very disappointing and frustrating at the same time,” he said. “I think for the next few weeks, probably until the Stanley Cup is won, it’s going to be pretty depressing for a lot of the guys. Not being able to have that chance to play in the playoffs, that’s probably what hurts the most.”

Ott does believe the future is bright, however, and looks for the club to attain lofty heights next year.

“Actually, I think my expectations for next year are probably higher than that Western Conference Finals team (last season),” Ott said. “I think our forward group, by far, is one of the tops in the league, just looking at it right now with everybody healthy. I think next year, you’re going to see us up at the top of the league all year.

“The core group definitely puts an onus on each other and holds the whole team accountable. I think you’re going to see guys here mid-August, early August, skating here a full month prior to camp. I think with this long rest period, you’re going to see training camp amped up to a whole new level next year, seeing our team ready to go into the regular season. I think you’re going to see us at full tilt a lot earlier.” 

There’s no question that Ott, through his performance this season, earned his newfound place among the Stars’ core of key components and will be relied upon next season to make a similar contribution.

“This year, he had more responsibility with Brenden out and given a chance, he’s a guy that took advantage of it,” Robidas noted. “I always saw in him a really good player. He’s got pretty good skill for the type of game he’s playing and he’s a typical power forward. He can score goals, he can fight, he can hit, he can make plays and he’s a smart player.”

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