The era of Mark Streit, swingman, is over. And the Swiss – get ready for it – defenseman couldn’t be happier.
“I play 100 percent, full-time defenseman so I’m happy with that,” said Streit, now 28 games into his New York Islanders career after joining them as a free agent last summer. “That’s one of the big reasons I signed with the Islanders and obviously it was always my goal to play as a defenseman.”
Last year, when Streit was among the top-scoring rearguards in the league with Montreal, people were quick to attach an asterisk beside his name because he wasn’t exclusively a defenseman.
Streit always manned the point on the Canadiens’ potent power play, but often took his regular shift as a forward on the third or fourth line.
“In Montreal I was kind of in and out; played on the power play as a defenseman, but other than that I was the joker a little bit – wherever they needed me, they put me,” Streit said.
Streit parlayed a 62-point season and the fact he was a key member of the league’s No. 1 power play last season into a five-year deal to play on Long Island for $4.1 million annually. Some thought it was a case of paying racehorse money to a one-trick pony who would find it much tougher to flourish now that he wasn’t surrounded by such talented teammates.
That notion can be safely heaved out the window.
Through Tuesday night’s action, Streit sat seventh in league scoring among defensemen, one spot ahead of Chicago’s $57-million man Brian Campbell and further up the charts than the likes of Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Pronger.
Make no mistake; Streit’s production is still rooted in the power play. In fact, his 14 man-advantage points is tops among all blueliners and accounts for 70 percent of his 20 total points. Streit has six goals this year and none of them have come at even strength (five on the power play, one shorthanded).
Yes, Streit is minus-6, but he also plays for a team that gives up the third-most goals per game and has produced the fewest 5-on-5 markers of any NHL team this season with just 35.
Look beyond the numbers and you’ll see a guy who’s working game in and game out to shed the ‘specialist’ label. And he’s getting plenty of opportunities to do it, thanks to the fact he plays roughly 25 minutes a game, almost five minutes more than any other Islander.
“He’s established that he is a defenseman,” said Islanders coach Scott Gordon. “I think coming into the year there was a little bit of uncertainty, not from knowing (if he could do it), but just from the perception of him playing defense mostly on the power play and being the odd guy in and out of the lineup as a defenseman.
“What he’s done now is he’s been able to perform as a defenseman full time and not just be an offensive guy, but be a guy who can kill penalties and he’s played, at times, against other teams’ top lines. I think he really has shown he’s more than just a power play specialist.”
Proving things to hockey types is certainly nothing new for Streit, who turns 31 on Thursday. He originally came to North America nearly 10 years ago as an undrafted player trying to show his worth. He split the 1999-2000 season between the ECHL, American League and even played one game in the old International League.
Sufficed to say, the undersized defenseman from a place known more for its chocolate and neutrality didn’t exactly send scouts scrambling for the phone.
“Nobody really believed I was capable of being an NHL player, so I had to go back (to Switzerland); there was no other way and I knew if I wanted to come back (to North America) I had to work really hard and be an impact player in Switzerland and show what I can do at the World Championship,” Streit said.
Streit played five seasons with Zurich in the Swiss League, increasing his point totals each year. It would have been easy to sink into a comfortable life as a well-paid pro athlete playing at home, but Streit never relinquished the belief he could play with the best. His hard work paid off when the Habs selected him as a 26-year-old with the 262nd overall pick of the 2004 draft.
“It was still my dream,” Streit said of playing in the big show while he toiled in Europe. “When I was 24, 25, I thought, ‘Well, it’s going to be tough,’ but it was still somewhere in my head, that’s why I kept working and believing and when I finally got drafted, it was a dream come true.”
In three post-lockout seasons, Streit carved out a nice existence for himself in Montreal and proved he could be an effective NHLer. The resolve he showed in simply making the world’s best league is still very much a part of Streit and he won’t be content until everyone knows his on-ice position shouldn’t include a slash.
“In the past I played as a full-time defenseman and I played against some pretty good players and I knew I had it in me; I just wanted to prove it and I’m still proving it,” he said. “I want to get better and be a good defensive defenseman, but also good offensively.”
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Fridays.
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