That defenseman who sometimes played forward for the Habs. That's all I knew about Mark Streit when he signed with the Islanders on July 1, 2008.
In other words, I had no idea who this guy was or why the Islanders would sign him to a five-year contract on the first day of free agency. They were coming off a playoff-free season with a team consisting mostly of B- and C-list mercenaries. And just a few weeks prior to Streit's signing, Garth Snow skittered all over the place at the NHL draft, hoarding 13 picks and signaling pretty clearly that a full rebuild was coming. And their first extended unrestricted free agent contract goes to this guy?
I never expected Streit to exit as one of my favorite recent Islanders and as a player I'd respect as much for his game as his quiet strength in the face of almost constant adversity.
That quietness is why I'm sure many Islanders fans never seemed to really take to him, even after the highlight reel goals and being named captain. For people that prefer their defensemen to be of the monstrous, bruising, crease-clearer type, Streit's risky, offense-first style probably wasn't going to be an easy sell. Not that Streit couldn't lay a timely hit on a guy from time to time. But a moderately-sized, soft-spoken dude from Switzerland (for God's sake) wasn't going to appeal to those still pining for Denis Potvin: The Sequel.
Or maybe I'm projecting. Maybe the elitist geek in me would like to remember Mark Streit as one of the NHL's best defensemen playing for a team almost no one saw. As if he's the Firefly or Buckaroo Bonzai of professional hockey.
What's not up for debate are the man's skills with the puck. We did find out pretty quickly why the Canadiens tried to play him as a forward. Mainly because of stuff like this:
And eventually this:
For some defensemen, pinching in towards the net is a risk. For Streit, it was a blank canvas. Imagine moves like this almost nightly for a team that's in dead last from wire to wire. Whose goal differential was a -76, also dead last in the league.
For a lot of people, this is "tree falls in the forest with no one around" territory. But Streit led the 2008-09 Islanders in scoring with 16 goals and 56 points. Second on the team that year? Twenty year-old Kyle Okposo with 39 points. That's a lot of trees falling in a very dark and scary forest that few people would choose to enter.
The next season was more of the same. Eleven goals and 49 points for a team with a -44 differential, albeit one including recent first overall pick John Tavares. Four years after that rough rookie season, Tavares would cite Streit as a major influence and teacher of the new generation of Islanders. Much of that teaching was confined to the locker room thanks to Streit's low-key nature.
With losses mounting and fan agitation increasing as the rebuild trudged on, Streit could have easily tapped out and said enough was enough. In nearly every season with the Islanders, he was listed as a possible playoff rental for a "real" team that could use him. I don't think anyone would have blamed him if he took the next plane ticket out of LaGuardia.
But he didn't. He signed with the Islanders, a team nobody signs with, because they offered him a chance to be a first pair defenseman in the NHL. He used that opportunity to become a leading scorer and All Star. He missed a season with a shoulder injury and the Islanders fell tantalizing and frustratingly short of an attainable playoff berth. They made him the captain of a team packed with rookies and washouts on their last chances. And he responded by challenging them to be better and showing them how an NHL player does his job every day.
In his final season with the Islanders, he helped lead them to playoffs. Along the way, he passed the torch to young D-men Thomas Hickey and Matt Donovan, who will be expected to fill the role he defined. Their emergence and potential precipitated his departure at the end of that five-year contract.
In a way, he's come full circle. He's once again part of a collection of mercenaries that offered him a chance for big minutes. This time around, his skills may have eroded and he's not expected to teach any of the Flyers veterans how to act. Should the Flyers continue to struggle, the deadline trade chip rumors will no doubt pop up again.
I've managed to write this ode to Streit without using the most over-abused word in sportswriting. It's five letters long, starts with a "C" and ends with two "S's" and usually means "somebody acted the way I wanted them to act so it must be right." But I felt an appreciation was in order for a guy who was the face, hands and skates of the Islanders through a very difficult transition period.
I'm sure not everybody feels the same way as I do. Some will blame Streit for many of the losses the team suffered throughout that time. That's understandable, too.
No matter what obstacle was in front of them on or off the ice, Mark Streit was never not proud of being an Islander, and represented this team as well as anyone has. In 2008, I didn't know this guy from a hole in the wall. Now, I hope the team is full of guys just like him.
More from Lighthouse Hockey:
- [Bits] Don't Think. Just Do.
- Recap - New York Islanders 4, Pittsburgh Penguins 3: Bailey, Bouchard, Nielsen Late Heroes
- New York Islanders vs. Pittsburgh Penguins Preview: No Marc-Andre Fleury to kick around
- [Gameday Bits] Frans Beats the Rap, Brock Joins the Family Business and Mike Bossy: Sharpshooter
- NHL Power Rankings - Islanders Even Mediocre-er!