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No tall tales

Diminutive wing Martin St. Louis sparks the Lightning - and he isn't just playing over his head.

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 30, 2002


photo
[Times photo: Dan McDuffie]
With six goals and seven assists in nine games, Martin St. Louis has been a big reason for the Lightning's fast start.
TAMPA -- It is easy to overlook Martin St. Louis, so to speak. He sets his sights high -- and that's about it.

At 5 feet 9, the Lightning right wing is closer to the ice than most NHL players. Looking down at him is a lot easier than keeping up with him.

"He's so far down, defensemen have trouble getting to him," said center and linemate Brad Richards, who's 6-1. "He's so low, when you hit him it's like running into a little brick wall."

And Fredrik Modin, the left wing on their line, added: "The first time I saw (St. Louis) I thought, 'Wow, that guy's quick.' Now we're used to seeing him buzzing around out there. ... He's got a flow to his game where, in the back of your mind you think everything you throw at him he's going to be able to come up with it."

As a kid in Montreal, St. Louis looked up to a couple of diminutive stars, 5-7 Mats Naslund of the Canadiens (251 goals and 383 assists in 651 games over eight seasons) and 5-6 current Blackhawk Theo Fleury (443 goals and 612 assists in 1,030 games starting his 15th season).

"I was always the smallest player on my team growing up and Naslund definitely was a good role model for me," said St. Louis, 27. "And as I got older I saw Fleury, another small player playing with a lot of grit, in your face every night.

"I'd say to myself, 'If they're in the league, why can't another small player be in it?' That definitely was something to shoot for."

Being small requires compensating in other areas. By the time he was playing for Vermont, where he was a three-time finalist for the Hobey Baker Award that goes to college hockey's premier player, St. Louis had combined his natural quickness with hard work.

"I've spent every game I've ever played making sure I'm outworking the other guy," he said, "because if you're the one who's outworked, people start to think it's because you're too small.

"You don't want to give anyone a chance to say, 'Yes, but his size ... ' Trust me, there's been a fair amount of time when I've heard that. I'm battling it every day of every year. And that's fine. It makes me work harder. When you accomplish things people don't expect you to, it feels twice as good."

St. Louis is feeling quite good this season, his third with Tampa Bay. Going into tonight's game against the Rangers, he has a team-leading six goals (including the Lightning's only short-handed goal) and seven assists. Nine days ago in New York St. Louis had two goals and an assist in a 4-2 victory against the Rangers.

Compare his Lightning-leading 13 points in nine games to what he managed in 69 games over parts of two seasons (1998-2000) at Calgary: four goals, 16 assists for 20 points. You could say the Flames overlooked his potential.

He was relegated to third and fourth lines by Calgary coach Brian Sutter, given more of a defensive role. In retrospect, that helped St. Louis become more of a complete player.

"I'd never learned to play defense until then," he said. "But looking back I realize that if you want to play in the NHL you've got to be well-rounded. They didn't give me the opportunity to develop as a complete player. Offensively, I didn't have the numbers because of the situations they put me in. Deep down, I felt once I got to play in an offensive position I could produce."

After the 1999-2000 season, Sutter and Flames general manager Al Coates were fired. St. Louis was a victim of the housecleaning. Within a few weeks of becoming a free agent, he had a few offers to consider, he said. One came from the Lightning, among the league's worst teams. He took it.

"Tampa Bay was the most logical place for me," he said. "I'd have a more expanded role. With a more established team, with a lot of guys making more money than me, it'd be tough getting more playing time."

Rick Dudley, then the Lightning general manager, offered St. Louis a contract. In his first two seasons with Tampa Bay he collected 34 goals and 31 assists despite missing 26 games in 2001-02 with a broken leg.

"It was a great signing by Duds," Lightning coach John Tortorella said. "He brought Marty in here to give him a chance and he just took off. ... I think it's a matter of what's inside, too. It doesn't matter what your size is or skill level is. If you decide to play hard, you can be a pretty effective player, and Marty understands this."


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