Thursday, January 5, 2012
Thursday Morning Cupcheck - Better Know a Star: Steve Ott
Why? Because villains are way cooler than heroes.
Good morning, hockey fans! Last week we wiped a tear from our eyes as we bid farewell to 2011; this week, rather than laugh and jump up and down and shoot wildly into the air about how right I was about the Anaheim Ducks before the season started, it's time to clear up a few idiotic notions some Least Coast-media types have about the Dallas Stars' resident pepperpot, Steve Ott.
Normally you have to wipe away gallons of Fanta-tinged drool just to read what others in the hockey world say about the guy. Mainly, they say he's a talentless, cowardly chirping goon with no discernible purpose on the ice.
Which is precisely what Steve Ott wants them to say.
While he may not be fifth in the NHL in faceoffs, Ott still brings more to the table in more areas of the ice than all but a handful of players in the NHL. He scores, he hits, he kills penalties, he anchors the powerplay, he draws penalties, he fights ... and he wins faceoffs.
More importantly, he makes his teammates, and specifically his linemates, better. When the season started, the national hockey media left Loui Eriksson for dead and didn't even bother to mention Jamie Benn in their preseason predictions. Starting the season on a line with both Benn and Eriksson, Ott brought defensive responsibility, an excellent faceoff percentage and — most shockingly — a point per game in the scoring department to a trio that most saw as nothing more than a poorly-constructed second line.
With Ott taking draws and clearing space, that line became lethal, starting most of their shifts in the defensive zone and finishing most of their shifts with a scoring chance at the other end. It was beyond effective, and the #1 reason why the Stars led the NHL at 11-3-0 through the first part of the season.
Then Ott got injured, and his spot was filled by Michael Ryder as Ott was needed elsewhere — namely, the struggling Ribeiro-Morrow line that was supposed to be the Stars' #1 line.
Before Ott joined up with those two, the Ribs-Morrow line was easily the worst on the team. Ribeiro could not generate a scoring chance to save his life, nor could he win a single faceoff. Morrow was a shell of the physical presence he once was, with just three goals in the first two months of the season. Ribs and Morrow weren't just ineffective, they were embarrassingly so: skating five feet into the offensive zone before dumping the puck off harmlessly into the corners, sending slow-moving passes through the crease as Morrow was boxed off helplessly to the side of the net, or chasing after the puck in their own zone as opposing teams skated circles around them. The line couldn't win a puck battle, make a pass, or take a shot.
Then coach Gulutzan decided to put Ott on that line, and ... viola! Instant success.
With Ott clearing space up front, Morrow more than doubled his season's goal total in just six games. Ribeiro has become a point-a-game player and has quietly put up more assists (21) than his old "more talented" teammate Brad Richards (14). The line isn't spending its entire shift in the defensive zone, and can take defensive draws again without giving up prime scoring chances. Most tellingly, it seems other teams have picked up on this and have assigned their top defensive pairings to cover the Ribeiro line once again, freeing up the Benn line to do serious damage.
In other words, Ott is so good at what he does that even other lines benefit from his play on the ice.
Most impressive is the way Ott has gone about this over his career. When he broke into the league a decade ago, Ott was nothing out of the ordinary: He had terrific speed but no shot, and no offensive skills. And while he could fight, he put himself in the penalty box too often, hurting his team more than helping. He couldn't take faceoffs or play defense or create offense — in other words, he was no different from a typical AHL fourth-line call-up. And that's where he languished for the first four years of his career.
But along the way, Ott began to do something very few professional athletes can: He started improving his game. To stay at the NHL level, Ott began to work on his offensive game. To avoid being a healthy scratch, he began to refocus his "goonery" towards the other team's top-line skill players rather than their fourth-line fighters. To justify more ice time, he began to work on his defensive responsibilities and kill penalties.
It all happened so gradually, most of the hockey media (who rely heavily on lazy stereotypes) might have missed it. Ott moved from the fourth line to the third line, matching up against the league's top scorers, and getting in their grills until they were off their game mentally — a ridiculous notion (why should a #1 center take a swing at Ott and take himself off the ice for five minutes?), but just ask Thornton, Ignila, and Sundin about how effectively that strategy worked.
Thanks to a rash of injuries in 2007-08 and 2008-09, Ott saw time on the top two lines, and produced at nearly a point-per-game clip. He was still a terrible faceoff man (46%), but you could slide him on any position on any line and he would fit in. In 2009-10, another injury-ravaged year saw him score 22 goals, a career high — but also saw tons of defensive lapses that led to a -14 +/-, a career low.
So Ott went to work on improving his faceoff percentage. The result? He went from an unremarkable 46% career to two straight seasons of 55% or better, putting him top-10 in the league. Combine that with 250 hits and 32 points from the third line, and you've got a very valuable role player.
Throw that role player on the top two lines with that same faceoff percentage, defensive workmanship and a well-earned hockey intelligence, and you've got the makings of a great, not good, hockey player and leader. Who, despite a few injuries already this season, has still put up 18 points in 32 games and made whichever line he's on that much better.
He may not fit the mold the hockey media expects him to fill, but in terms of actual effectiveness, he's clearly one of the most valuable Stars on a roster full of underrated talent. Considering where he came from 10 years ago, it's quite an accomplishment. Especially when you look around the league and see a vast majority of NHL players declining with age, rather than improving aspects of their game that they never had.
Especially the faceoff thing. If Ott could just improve his shooting percentage by 10 points in a single offseason ... well, we can always dream.
See more stories in:
- Thursday Morning Cupcheck - The Five Most Hated Players in the NHL
- Thursday Morning Cupcheck - 10 Worst Losses in Dallas Stars History
- Thursday Morning Cupcheck - Ranking the Top Five Dallas Stars Rivalries
- Thursday Morning Cupcheck - Top 5 Reasons the Dallas Stars Will/Won't Make the Playoffs
- Thursday Morning Cupcheck - The Five Worst Dallas Stars of All Time