Sweden hopes to Steen-roll in Sochi
When you notice Alexander Steen leads the league in goals and is tied for first in points, you search for some sort of explanation for this unexpected reality.
That Steen -- son of the great Swede Thomas Steen -- has always been a good, reliable player has never been in question, but to see him shoulder to shoulder with the game's elite scorers and to acknowledge him as a first-quarter Hart Trophy candidate is, well, a bit beyond most folks' expectations.
So, what happened?
New mystical training regimen?
What if it's none of the above?
Steen laughs at the notion that his production has prompted such queries, that he has suddenly morphed into a completely new hockey entity. And he's certainly not given to any kind of introspection with so much hockey left to be played this season.
"I don't really sit back and analyze the first quarter of the season," Steen told ESPN on the eve of a key matchup between his St. Louis Blues, off to their best start in franchise history, and the surprising Colorado Avalanche.
"I've always taken pride in evolving as a player and a person," he added. "I think from year to year, what I've been proud of is when the season's over to look back and feel like I've evolved and progressed."
When Blues coach Ken Hitchcock talks about Steen, it's almost as if the points and the goals are an afterthought, that the essence of Alex Steen and his place on a Blues team with significant Stanley Cup aspirations goes far beyond the numbers on the score sheet.
Not that Hitchcock minds the points, having challenged his team in the offseason to produce more from within, but it's how Steen continues to produce offense that pleases the coach. That is, through dogged determination and hard work.
"I think he's really strong on the puck and he creates so many chances off his checking. And I think that's what's really understated," Hitchcock said in an interview this week.
"I think they play a very similar game," Hitchcock said.
After Thursday's 7-3 blowout win over the Avs, Steen is riding an 12-game point streak, by far the longest in the league this season and the longest Blues point streak since Keith Tkachuk also managed a 12-game streak in 2002-03.
Steen netted at least a goal in each of the Blues' first 11 wins this season, the first time that had been done since Eric Lindros set a modern NHL record by scoring in the Flyers' first 12 wins. Only once this season has Steen failed to record at least a point in a game.
Both Steen and Hitchcock point to the stability of how Hitchcock has used Steen this season -- keeping him for the most part with captain David Backes and T.J. Oshie to form one of the most dynamic lines in the NHL -- as a factor in his offensive surge.
And Hitchcock said he's noted a subtle evolution in the dressing room from his best all-around player.
"I think he's way more vocal," Hitchcock said. "He's way more demanding of himself and others, and he has a real healthy respect of the players because they see how dedicated he is."
It's not just on the ice, either, but also away from the rink and in the training room, and in how Steen prepares and takes care of himself.
"His physical leadership has been very important for our team," Hitchcock said.
Steen acknowledged that as he's gotten older -- he's 29 and has been in the league since 2005-06, when he broke in with Toronto after the Leafs drafted him 24th overall in 2002 -- he's tried to vary his offseason regimen. Sometimes more distance running and less focus on weights. Sometimes tennis and soccer or badminton mixed in, all with an eye toward allowing him to be at optimum strength come playoff time.
"You don't want to be worn down after 82 games; you want to be peaking after 82 games," Steen said.
As for his value to the team and how he is viewed by coaches and teammates, that is the validation of his work, not necessarily the product of goals and the assists. "For me, personally, what has given me confidence is, how do my teammates view me?" Steen said. "Am I being relied on? That's always kind of pushed me, even through this year. Obviously, I've been able to score some goals in the early going. But I really haven't changed my game."
If Hitchcock sees a little of Zetterberg in Steen's play, GM Doug Armstrong sees a little of Jere Lehtinen, the great two-way forward from Finland who was a big part of the Dallas Stars' success in the 1990s.
"He was viewed as this top defending player, top two-way player, but Jere Lehtinen in my years there led our team in goal scoring a couple of different times, and that's, I think, Alex Steen," said Armstrong. "Now is he [Steen] going to keep at this pace and score 78, 80 goals? I don't think so. But I think he's a 20- to 30-goal scorer on a regular basis, and I think his numbers point out to that when he's healthy over an 82-game schedule.
"But more importantly, he helps our team win in so many different ways. He touches every facet: 5-on-5, both sides of the power play, both sides of the penalty kill, and he's an excellent leader, too. So he's the full package."
It is hard this season to discuss players' successes or failures without seeing it through the Olympic prism, and Steen's play has certainly guaranteed him a spot on the Swedish team in Sochi in February. Steen, who was born in Winnipeg, is eligible to play for Sweden because he is Swedish and because he has never represented another country in international play. Since he previously represented Sweden, that is the only national team for which he can play. He felt he had a shot at making the team in 2010, but after a strong start to the season he got injured and was left off the roster.
Was he stung by the omission? Sure, but Steen said he moved quickly past it. "I let it go right after," he said. "It was what it was."
Regardless, he insists he's not thinking about the Olympics now, preferring instead to think only in terms of what lies directly ahead: the Avs on Thursday. A day at a time, a week at a time. There will be time as the Olympics draw closer to think about fulfilling his long-standing dream of pulling on the Swedish jersey.
Former Swedish GM and NHL great Mats Naslund is no longer with the national team, but he watched Steen play with Modo during the lockout last season and thought the young man was blossoming as a complete player, spreading his wings offensively in a way that perhaps hadn't happened before.
Sometimes, Naslund told ESPN.com this week, a player gets pigeonholed, and in Steen's case maybe he was viewed only as a dedicated two-way player while the other elements of his game hadn't come fully into focus. Now, the entire game is more fully developed.
As for Sochi, Steen's play this season will give the Swedish coaching staff lots of options with its top forwards, Naslund said. Players such as Steen and Henrik Zetterberg are able to move seamlessly from the middle to the wing as Steen has done this season, although he continues to take draws on the left side of the ice.
More balanced scoring will take the pressure off the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, to carry the load offensively in the tournament, Naslund predicted.
"Alex will be a big part of that Swedish team, in my opinion," added Armstrong, who is part of the Canadian Olympic selection group. "Now, I don't pick the Swedish team, but hopefully they see it the same way I do."
Naslund played internationally with Thomas Steen many times and sees similarities between the two: both skilled hockey players who perhaps didn't know exactly how good they were.
It seems Alex Steen might have discovered just how good he is, not through any special sticks or spells, but simply by doing what he has done all along.
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