Martin St. Louis: Among Best Small Forwards Ever

BRUCE BENNETT/GETTY IMAGES SPORTBRUCE BENNETT/GETTY IMAGES SPORT

Big things have small beginnings. Martin St. Louis, who went undrafted and spent time in the International Hockey League, is now putting the finishing touches on a Hall of Fame-worthy career. Although passed over for a position on Team Canada by his own general manager – and Intelligent Hockey – he was named an injury replacement after NHL teammate Steven Stamkos bowed out. Now, St. Louis has an opportunity to add a Gold Medal to his already impressive resume.

St. Louis has been so dominant for so long that you wonder when he is going to begin to slow down. He is entering the elite club of outstanding NHL forwards listed at 5’8” or smaller – players like Ted Lindsay, Henri Richard, Yvan Cournoyer, and Marcel Dionne.

In the beginning, St. Louis had NHL dreams. He was good at hockey, but considered too small to play in the NHL — even after setting school records for assists and points at the University of Vermont. St. Louis was even a three-time finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, the Heisman of NCAA hockey. Incredibly, despite gaudy statistics and national recognition at the collegiate level, he went undrafted.

But he was persistent, continuing to dominate in the now-defunct International Hockey League. The Calgary Flames signed him as a free agent in 1998, seemingly saving him from semi-professional purgatory, but he was relegated to a third-line, checking role, and sometimes he killed penalties. This was beneath him, considering his prolific puck skills and perspicacity at creating scoring chances. He never clicked with the Flames because he was never given a chance to succeed in a way that displayed his strengths.

St. Louis got a second chance in the NHL with the Tampa Bay Lightning when the Calgary Flames bought out (!) his contract in the summer of 2000. It was a two-year, $550,000 deal, with St. Louis pleading for an increased offensive chance. And the rest is history. His offensive skills translated, and he found immediate chemistry in the 2002 season with Brad Richards as his center. The duo demonstrated an unerring scoring touch against helpless opponents, and St. Louis was allowed to showcase his craftiness at avoiding contact in high-traffic areas.

Then adversity hit. Midway through the ‘02 season, St. Louis experienced a spinal fracture of his right fibula, an injury that upended his season and wreaked havoc on his prized lower body – the source of his power. He worked like a maniac to recover, and the torturous workout he subjected himself to would become a theme throughout his career. Every season, he seemed to up the ante. If you think St. Louis is fast now wait until next season after he is done with his new trainer. You think it is hard to take the puck from St. Louis now? Just wait until you see him; he has been rolling a boulder up a hill every day this offseason.

Rebounding in extraordinary fashion from his fractured fibula, St. Louis began to assert his mastery in 2003. He continued to play with Richards, but Tampa Bay also had offensive firepower and speed in its top six, with Vincent Lecavalier in his prime and Vaclav Prospal an asset. Additionally, Dan Boyle provided puck-moving prowess from the back end. Tampa Bay finished first in its division that season, but lost in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Next season would be different.

St. Louis’ ability to coerce the puck from the enemy and wield it to his own desire has been so commanding for so long that it seems important to find the watershed, “aha!” moment. That year was likely 2004, when St. Louis seemed to become a household name in North America. He was pivotal in the Lightning’s 2004 Cup run, compiling nine goals and 15 assists while playing just under 24 minutes a game.

The Lightning won the Stanley Cup that year, and St. Louis won the Art Ross Trophy, the Hart Trophy, and the Ted Lindsay Award for his regular season superiority. After winning the Lady Byng Trophy in consecutive years in 2010 and 2011, he won the Art Ross Trophy again in 2013, nearly ten years after he was first awarded it. He also won the Lady Byng again in 2013. Year after year, St. Louis delivers swift and efficient justice for his employer. And teams cannot stop what is coming.

The rise of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2003 correlates with St. Louis’ consistent output of superstar numbers. From his first 82-game season with the Lightning in 2002-03 to the present day – that’s eleven years — he is second in the league in  points. He is sixth in points per game over that same time span. He is a well-known distributor, and his assist totals reflect that. He is third in assists over those eleven seasons, and ninth in assists per game. His goal totals are not too shabby either. He is eighth in goals and 19th in goals per game.

It is important to put St. Louis in an historical context. Pre-salary cap, he was a burgeoning superstar in the clutch-and-grab era where offense was asphyxiated. He was able to procure multiple chances a game against defenders who were allowed much more leeway to constrain forwards. The rule changes after the lockout, which opened up the game offensively, probably helped St. Louis extend his career as a star player because defensemen were no longer allowed to batter wingers off the puck like they used to. If you cannot hook or disrupt St. Louis in open ice, you are forced to skate in a footrace against him and try to win the puck from him one-on-one. That is a losing proposition for defensemen.

Initially spurned by the NHL, St. Louis has always played with a chip on his shoulder. But the fire he plays with is also controlled; St. Louis rarely takes penalties, letting his play humiliate his opponents. On the Lightning, he became the tyrant we see today: relentlessly competitive, ruthlessly determined, cold-blooded enough to euthanize opposing team’s playoff hopes and young defensemen’s NHL chances on a nightly basis. Even in a league chock-full of explosive, dynamic playmakers, St. Louis’ numbers stand out as he nears 40 years of age.

Through 58 games this season, St. Louis has 25 goals and 31 assists. He is playing close to 22 minutes a night. He has a good Corsi and Fenwick, which help bolster a proficient, puck-driving team. St. Louis will do anything to keep the puck in his team’s possession, and keep the offensive zone play alive. When he does not have the puck, he understands when to recede onto higher ice and when to orbit the net. St. Louis has made a career of being where others are not, and releasing his shot before his opponent has time to get there.

St. Louis has never seemed overwhelmed by the moment, and that has been consistent throughout his career. He always plays composed, creates room with the puck, and finds a way to impact play in all three zones. His footwork is inconspicuous because he looks so smooth, but his lower-body push allows him to explode past defenders and offer a soft landing spot for his defensemen when he catches passes in his skates and seamlessly moves it to his stick. Put the puck in his vicinity and he will catch it and not break stride.

One of the funny things about watching St. Louis is that opponents can knock him off balance or disrupt his path to the puck – but it never seems to stop him from arriving at his final destination on time. He is like an airplane that gets delayed, but speeds up in the air to make up for lost time. He always arrives, right on schedule.

The tiny superstar forward has come in waves. First there was Ted Lindsay with Detroit. Then there was Montreal’s Henri Richard, followed by Yvan Cournoyer. When Cournoyer was peaking, Marcel Dionne was selected in the Amateur Draft by Detroit, but was traded to the Los Angeles Kings four years later. (Theo Fleury could also be considered, but his stardom and dominance were more short-lived.)

Common threads unite these players: the ability to rush with the puck, a transient release on their shot, and precision in their placement of the puck on their passes and shots. St. Louis will never touch the point totals reached by Dionne, or the number of Stanley Cups amassed by Richard, but he has been one of the best forwards of the last decade-plus. And he is the only player in this group who has more than one Art Ross Trophy (Lindsay and Dionne have one each). He belongs in the elite “all-time best small forward” conversation.

“Terrible” Ted Lindsay was the most ornery of this tiny group of nonpareil forwards, but he transferred his fury into chaos for his opponents. While putting his opponents in disarray, Lindsay, like St. Louis, was economic in his movement. He also was intuitive in his passing, and had the vision and awareness to know where his linemates liked to go on the ice. Lindsay and his line were highly productive, and he was determined in his scoring.

Lindsay won four Stanley Cups and got to play with one of the best players ever in Gordie Howe. The duo left an indelible mark on the NHL. “Terrible” was brash, but could dominate with the rest of the Production Line with ease and arrogance. He was ultra-competitive, which helped him maintain effectiveness over a long, extremely successful career. Well-known for founding the NHL Players Association, Lindsay is also credited with inventing the Stanley Cup victory lap.

Shortly after Lindsay got exiled by Detroit to Chicago in retribution for starting the NHLPA, center Henri Richard emerged from the shadow of his brother, Maurice “Rocket” Richard. In 1958, the “Pocket Rocket” led the NHL in assists, exhibiting puck control and playmaking acumen similar to St. Louis. Richard also had a lot of what makes St. Louis attractive to Team Canada, attributes that explain why Tampa Bay continues to have success with Stamkos hurt. Like St. Louis, Richard was a leader and had locker room presence. He understood tradition and winning. Richard won 11 Stanley Cups in 20 seasons; no one has won more championships. And he helped usher in the young guys during transition, giving them confidence.

In contrast to St. Louis, Yvan “The Roadrunner” Cournoyer was known for his extraordinary upper body. St. Louis gets his thighs and calves discussed; for Cournoyer it was his shoulders and massive wrists. In the late 60s-early 70s, Cournoyer had one of the top wrist shots in hockey.

A similarity Cournoyer shares with St. Louis is his propensity for creating on the off-wing. You need immense skill and speed to be able to skate with the puck from one side of the ice to the other – by definition you need to skate through the middle. Cournoyer was excellent at this, and so is St. Louis. St. Louis’s dominant postseason performance in 2004 mirrors what Cournoyer did in the 1973 Stanley Cup playoffs, where he buoyed the Habs with his 25 points to their 17th franchise Cup. In the finals, Cournoyer scored six goals against the Chicago Black Hawks, including the game winner in Game 2 and Game 6.

Marcel Dionne was probably the most one-dimensional player among this forward group – but playing two-way hockey could be left up to the other four skaters if you were the tidal wave on offense that “Little Beaver” was. Wayne Gretzky is the all-time leader in goals in NHL history. Gordie Howe is number two, and Brett Hull is number three. Dionne is number four. He is ahead of Phil Esposito, Mark Messier, Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman, Mike Gartner, and Jaromir Jagr (for now).

Dionne got a ton of assists too, and his 1040 assists supplement his 731 goals nicely. He is fifth all-time in points, and on the short list of players (12) who have recorded over 1,000 assists. He had guile, and centered one of the most famous lines of the late 70s-early 80s, the Triple Crown Line. Dionne was an offensive machine – when he reached 1,000 points in 1981, it was the quickest anyone had reached that milestone. His skills with the puck were so overwhelming that he routinely got good shots at the net. When he was without the puck, he parked himself around the net to score the ugly goals.

There is some Dionne in St. Louis — his versatility in manufacturing scoring chances, his dependable point production, and his ability to stay healthy. Dionne played the game “the right way” and, like St. Louis, won multiple Lady Byng Trophies. Dionne was an exceptional scorer and one of the best centers to ever play the game.

St. Louis is a perennial enabler for Tampa Bay. Young protégés have emerged this season in his image, boosted from spending time around him. Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, and J.T. Brown have all adopted his uncharitable disposition with the puck towards those wearing different colored sweaters. They hold onto the puck for long stretches of time until they deposit it past the opposing goaltender or see a teammate in open space.

Team Canada is a better team with St. Louis than without him. While their struggles against Finland were absolutely not all attributable to St. Louis not playing, they definitely looked more cohesive at forward in their first two contests when he did see minutes. St. Louis remains a destructive force who shows no remorse. He will bury you if you stand his way. So stand back and watch.

Posted in the Category of: Features

Comments

  1. Nancy Cherney says:

    Marty St. Louis in my eyes is not only one of the best hockey players in this decade, but also a great teacher and role model for the young players coming up into the league. I will never forget what a genuine and caring man he was when we met him in Cleveland when he played for the IHL Cleveland Lumberjacks. He’s been an inspiration to our family for all these years and wish nothing but the best for him. He’s worked so hard to get to where he is and our family couldn’t be happier for him. Go Marty!!

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