What kind of player is Steve Ott? What kind of player can he be? Fans of 29 other teams would no doubt have little trouble asnwering that question, but close observers of the Dallas Stars have experienced shifting opinions in recent years.
Steve Ott scored 116 goals in three seasons with the Windsor Spitfires on one end of the spectrum, and set a team record for the Hamilton Bulldogs during the lockout with 279 PIMs on the other. He's played every role in between in Dallas. Witness here how just five seasons ago he carried the label "enforcer/fighter" when injuring his ankle in October of 2006.
As his "star" has risen (please forgive me) in Dallas so too have his responsibilities and tangible contributions on the score-sheet. When Ott scored 37 points in the final 40 games of the 2008-2009 season after years of agitation and "irritainment" he would significantly change the way Stars fans look at his game.
"Which Ott will we get tonight?", fans would ask. Joe Nieuwendyk and his staff had need to test the ceiling for Ott's offensive talent last season in the wake of the mess left by Hicks Sports Group, and a season of mixed results on that front seems to have once and for all defined what his role should be.
Tom Gaglardi spent four days in Dallas earlier this month, and if the quotes he and Jim Lites gave are any indication, the front office came together as a group to solidify plans and a direction for this off-season. Lites spoke of Steve Ott on the Norm Hitzges show, and likely crafted his words with that unified sense of direction (and therefore the thoughts of Joe Nieuwendyk and Tom Gaglardi) behind them:
"We like the way our bottom six forwards look out of what we have and what we can put together. It might mean taking a player or two that played up in the top six down. Steve Ott, for instance, that kind of player, and better define his role."
Is Steve Ott's long evolution reaching the end of the road? Don't we know who he is now, what his potential is, what he's capable of, and where he's best used?
In October of 2010, fresh off his career high 22 goal season, Steve Ott began the year on a line with none other than Jamie Benn, his frequent linemate this past season. With Richards and Eriksson anchoring the first line and Ribeiro and Morrow holding down the second, it was thought that Ott and Benn might form a duo with some chemistry to facilitate a dangerous offensive balance throughout the lineup. That thought was quickly dismissed and Ott's role remained somewhat undefined en route to a 12 goal, 32 point season - disappointing totals after what he had achieved in 2008-2009 and 2009-2010.
Then with Brad Richards and James Neal gone, Steve Ott was something of a hot topic last summer. The on-going ownership imbroglio saw only Michael Ryder come in to replace the two top-six talents, and Ott finally had his big shot to step up his game and grasp a more prominent offensive role.
With two 20 goal seasons in his recent past (19, 22) it seemed reasonable at the time that Ott might be able to "scale up" and provide that level of play for 82 games. There are a number of reasons this turned out not to be the case, though Ott still deserves credit for racking up 39 points and being the apple of everyone's eye at the trade deadline in yet another season where his linemates changed game-to-game.
Ott spent about 50% of his even strength time with Jamie Benn. He spent about a third of it with Mike Ribeiro. He spent about equal parts time with Brenden Morrow and Tomas Vincour, and still found a way to get in 146 even strength faceoffs along side Loui Eriksson as well. In that way it was a pretty typical Steve Ott year. He goes where he's told, but it's always somewhere different. He fills in where he's needed. He's a utility forward. He's a penalty killer. He's a great faceoff guy. (Just ask him, he'll tell you about it)
In other words, no matter how much time he spends with the "top-six" forwards on the team, he's really blossomed into an important checking line-type player. He was being used as such (along with Jamie Benn) as this last season raced to a close because the Stars were killed by matchup problems if they tried anything different.
Observers of this year's Stanley Cup playoffs know what utility forwards capable of good defensive reads can do for a team. It's not sexy, but it's entirely necessary. Steve Ott needs to be one of those guys for this Dallas team, and he can do so only if the appropriate pieces are brought in to relieve him of any pressure to also add offense. That experiment needs to end.
This isn't to say that Ott absolutely couldn't be a "top-six" forward on another team, with another group. With the exact right mix, even after all we've seen, I still believe that's a possibility. It's just not a fit with this roster as constructed now and we've seen that play out over the last three seasons. That being said, the contenders pursuing him at the deadline likely would have used him in a checking line role.
So the 2012-2013 season approaches and this time, finally, any uncertainty about "which Ott" you'll see or what his role is should, in an ideal world (or ideal free agency period), be a thing of the past. Jim Lites said it himself. The Stars need a couple of top six forwards, and they can use what they have elsewhere (Ott, Fiddler, etc) to make a checking line. A good one. That's called putting "aces in their places," and it's exactly what the Stars, and Steve Ott need.