Winger Steve Downie looking to bring toughness and grit to Penguins

PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Winger Steve Downie and assistant coach Rick Tocchet came off of the ice and walked together toward the Pittsburgh Penguins locker room after a training camp practice one day this week.

It gave them a chance for a short chat. It must have been like old times.

Pittsburgh signed Downie as a free agent in July, addressing a need for grit and someone to help keep opponents honest when they play against Penguins stars such as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Tocchet, who won two Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh in the early 1990s, was hired during an off-season housecleaning.

For two years early in Downie’s career, 2008-09 and 2009-10, Tocchet worked closely with the winger when the two were with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Tocchet as an assistant and then head coach.

“He helped me develop my game at a young age,” Downie said. “He pushed me. He taught me how to play the game the right way. He played a similar game. He played a hard-nosed game, and he scored a lot of goals. I try and play my game like him, as much as I can.”

Tocchet said he passed along “little tricks of the trade that we’ve got to go back over, little details of his game. Because he’s a good player. He’s always got to stay on the details of his game. Always.”

The message in 2009-10 got through. Downie established career highs with 79 games, 27 goals, 24 assists, 46 points and 208 penalty minutes.

Downie, 27, doesn’t have the scoring touch of Tocchet, who had 440 goals and 952 points in 1,144 NHL games. Downie has 59 goals, 162 points in 336 games. A peek at their penalty minutes shows more of a similarity – 2.59 per game for Tocchet, 2.27 per game for Downie.

As a rookie with Philadelphia in 2007, Downie was suspended 20 games by the NHL for a hit he put on Ottawa’s Dean McAmmond in a preseason game.

Penguins fans might remember two incidents involving Downie when he was with the Lightning. In March 2010, from behind, he looped his leg around one of Crosby’s and hauled him down, nearly snapping the Penguins’ centre’s leg or ripping up his knee. In first round of the 2011 playoffs, Downie was suspended one game for a hit on Pittsburgh’s Ben Lovejoy.

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“You never want to take the emotion out of any player’s game,” Tocchet said. “He’s just got to know how far he can go. In his career sometimes he’s gone over the edge too much.”

Downie can’t think of anyone better than Tocchet to deliver that message.

“It’s a fine line,” Downie said. “He did a great job with it his whole career. To have him over my shoulder on the bench, there’s a lot of respect for him.”

Downie aims to keep proving why he is one of those players who is loved by his team and fans, hated by opponents and their fans.

“I take pride in sticking up for my teammates,” Downie said. “That’s something I bring to the table every night.”

It’s possible that playing with a skilled team will help Downie produce more offensively.

It looked for a while as if Downie might be settling in on the Penguins third line with Brandon Sutter and Beau Bennett. Coach Mike Johnston, though, is looking more for set pairs in the forward lines, with some wingers moving around as needed. Sutter and Bennett, in particular, seemed to click.

Bennett, though, got hurt during practice Friday.

So Downie might be on the move, maybe even to spot duty on the top line centred by Crosby or the second line once Malkin recovers from an undisclosed injury that has kept him off of the ice for all of training camp.

“You want a versatile player,” Tocchet said. “Can he play in the top six? Yeah, maybe he can. Is he a third-line player? Yeah. He can fill a role on the fourth line.”

Playing with Crosby or Malkin at times would give Downie a chance to thwart opponents with an eye toward disrupting – or mugging – two of the game’s top centres.

Just being around those and other Penguins stars could benefit Downie, according to Tocchet, who in Tampa Bay at times had Downie playing with then-budding star Steven Stamkos.

“They were very close,” Tocchet said. “Guys like Sidney Crosby, (Chris) Kunitz, Malkin, (Pascal) Dupuis – great players but solid citizens – he gravitates to those guys. He’ll learn from those guys. I like him to be around that type of player.”