The game-night TV lights shine brightly on every NHL player.
And then there are the select few who radiate above the rest, commanding our attention. Those players you can’t take your eyes off when you watch the game live.
Ottawa Senators left winger Tim Stützle already has that look about him: dancing, darting and scoring in Ottawa’s camp in a way that separates him from most of the forwards here. Is this the year Stützle creates a buzz far beyond the local fan base and throughout the NHL? He’s just 19. Will be 20 in January.
“Elite,” is the word right winger Connor Brown uses when asked how good Stützle can be. The kid barely scratched the surface of his talent in his still-impressive rookie season, with 29 points in 53 games and flashes of offensive brilliance.
Brown, who took his own game to new heights last season with Ottawa and in the world championships for Canada, is on a line with Stützle and veteran centre Chris Tierney early in camp. In their first scrimmage, Stützle and Brown were on the board quickly in a romp by their ‘C’ group. In a Friday morning session, Stützle was flying and scoring a “bushel” of goals, as one reporter termed it.
“The thing about him,” Brown continues, warming up to the topic of his young linemate, “he’s so good with open ice and he’s starting to learn how to create that time and space for himself. He’s getting smarter. Even at the end of last year, he had the puck way more and learned when and where to get the puck and when and where to make plays.
“His skill level is world class, so it’s just those little things that he is really starting to hone in on.”
Head coach D.J. Smith was suitably impressed by the first scrimmage of the Stützle, Tierney and Brown line. The veteran Tierney looks a lot fitter after a good summer of training.
“They’ve got the puck the entire time,” Smith said. “And they work. They work to get back, they make plays.”
Rushed into his NHL debut fresh out of the world juniors in Alberta, Stützle didn’t get the chance to ease into a rookie season with a camp or exhibition games. He would get knocked down, a little too easily, take sticks to the face, and just soldier on. This was not a skilled player who could be shaken off his game. He burned with the kind of competitive drive best exuded by his housemate, Brady Tkachuk, who nurtured him. And yet, we all could see the potential beyond year one.
Stützle started slowly, found his groove in February and then faded with fatigue late in the season, although he saved his season highlight for one glorious game in Winnipeg on May 8, scoring his first career hat trick and returning home the conquering hero to neighbours who tossed hats in his backyard.
“I got pretty tired at the end of the season,” Stützle acknowledges. “I played the world juniors after coming back from hand surgery. I was kind of preparing to play with my German team, Mannheim in the DL, because with my contract, we weren’t sure if I was going to be able to come over here.”
With just two games per week, the DL schedule would have allowed Stützle time to recuperate and gain strength, but instead he was thrown into a North American whirlwind -- with Covid-19 ravaging many of the German team that flew to Canada for the world juniors, and then the compressed NHL schedule with further virus restrictions keeping players housebound. He looks and feels freer, not to mention stronger physically.
“I kind of figured out that sometimes right after a season a little bit more rest helps,” Stützle says. “I feel really good right now and I’m just happy to be back and really excited to get going.”
Stützle says he went hard in the weight room during the first NHL season, trying to add strength. This summer, he worked more on his skating and some of the finer elements of his game.
In what seems an optical illusion, Stützle looks bigger but says he is actually lighter than the 200 pounds he was at season’s end. He is listed at 190.
“I tried to put on muscle and less fat,” he says.
Don’t we all. Though not as effectively.
As tantalizing as it may be to envision Stützle as a centre, that won’t happen any time soon. Smith says he has talked to Stützle about his wishes and the player is happy at the wing position for now.
“Never say never,” Smith says. “We will try eventually.”
As Smith notes, the team drafted Stützle as a winger, and he played for Mannheim plus the world junior team on the flank.
“That’s four years since he played centre,” Smith says, while picturing Stützle’s dynamic scoring ability from the wing.
While Stützle, Ottawa's third overall draft choice in 2020, prefers to talk about team goals, Smith is bullish about his individual potential in year two.
“I don’t want to put pressure on a young kid because I think the world of Timmy and his game, but what I see out there is a different, more confident, bigger, stronger kid that has a real ability to score goals,” Smith says. “I don’t want to put a number on him, then he feels he’s got to live up to that, but I certainly could see him scoring 25.”
Defenceman Thomas Chabot is another in the long line of players noting the growth, in every way, evident in Stützle.
“It’s a pretty big difference,” Chabot says. “The first year is always a tough one to get through but I mean, he’s -- I’ve said before -- he’s already played with men for a couple of years in Germany and he came in the room and was comfortable, he was used to being with older guys.
“Last year we saw a lot of great things from him but obviously I think we didn’t see it all. I think he’s such a great player, just the way he skates and makes plays. But I don’t think we saw it all...the more he plays the more we’re going to see.
“He’s just getting started -- he’s a big part of this team for a reason.”