MONTREAL – It wasn’t easy for Mark Streit to leave the Montreal Canadiens, the team that gave the late bloomer his chance to play in the NHL, but the Swiss veteran says it was necessary.
Now in his second season with the rebuilding New York Islanders, Streit has what he didn’t have in Montreal – a full-time spot on defence, not to mention a fat contract and an A on his jersey.
“Sometimes you have to make a move to get the respect and that’s what I did,” Streit said Monday as the Islanders prepared to play in Montreal for the second time in five days.
In three seasons with the Canadiens, Streit skated mainly on the power play and the rest of the time was used more as a left-winger on the fourth line than a defenceman, his natural position.
And when he became eligible for unrestricted free agency after a career-high 62 points in 2007-08, the Canadiens, who were paying him less than $1 million, were not about to shell out anything near the US$20.5 million he was offered over five years by the Islanders.
So as much as he was attached to wearing red, white and blue in Montreal, Streit jumped to Long island, where he led the team in scoring last season with 56 points, including a career-high 16 goals.
“Everyone knows I enjoyed it in Montreal, but I had a different role here and in my heart I was wasn’t really happy,” the 31-year-old said. “I was a forward, then a defenceman.
“It was great to break into the league, but after I established myself, I wanted to play as a defencemen and I knew that in order to do that I needed to make a move. I was happy the Islanders gave me that opportunity to show that I can play as a defenceman, play my game. That’s all I wanted.”
At six feet, 197 pounds, Streit is on the small side for a defenceman and at the time, NHL scouts were not exactly clamouring for players from the Swiss league, which was considered a long step below Russia, Sweden, Finland or other European circuits.
So Streit had to wait until he was 26 to be drafted by the Canadiens, 262nd overall in 2004.
But he joined the NHL club just after the 2004-05 lockout season, when the league cracked down on obstruction fouls and steered the sport toward Streit’s strengths – puck-moving and shooting.
There was a still a lot to prove – that a Swiss player other than a goalie like Martin Gerber or David Aebischer could play at the NHL level, and that he could stand up to the more physical play on the smaller North American ice surface.
After three seasons with the Canadiens, he had only been able to show definitively that he can be a force playing the point on the power play.
“I came out of nowhere,” he said. “I didn’t have a lot of credit when I got here.
“A lot of people thought I’d be here one year and then go back home, but that’s not the way I am. I had the NHL on my mind. Playing for the Canadiens was a great opportunity for me and I’m happy they gave it to me. I had to wait a long time, but I stuck with it. It wasn’t always easy or pretty, but you’ve got to earn your respect in this league, pay the price.”
It seemed that the Canadiens didn’t know what they had until it was gone. They spent most of last season trying to find someone to replace him on the right point and be the shooter beside left-point star Andrei Markov, finally making a late-season deal for veteran Mathieu Schneider.