If you had to pick the greatest single development of the Senators season it is probably this one: Moving Tim Stützle to centre ice and watching him grow into a future superstar.
In fact, "Timmy Superstar" and "Timmy (bleeping) Superstar" are already showing up as handles on Twitter and Instagram.
Still just 20-years-old, Stützle scored his 21st and 22nd goals of the season Tuesday night in Ottawa’s wild 5-4 overtime victory over the New Jersey Devils. As usual, the Sens are getting hot, late. This is their first four-game winning streak of the season.
Stützle scored on a power play rebound and then in a finer showcase of his talents, entertained the masses with a shorthanded beauty, skating through the Devils before deking Mackenzie Blackwood and tucking home the backhand.
“Unreal,” said winger Drake Batherson, describing that goal. “Everyone thought he was going five-hole, and he brings it to the backhand. His speed – I’m going to ask him where he did his skating lessons.”
That’s the rub, of course. You can’t teach that Stützle speed or the Timmy Stu dangling.
Just last Saturday, defenceman Thomas Chabot described Stützle as “probably the best player on our team,” when he was asked a question about protecting the young centre.
I found Chabot’s comment fascinating because over the past couple of seasons, Chabot has been described by coaches and players as the Senators best player. So has big captain Brady Tkachuk, Ottawa’s top current point producer with 65.
Until his injury just before the All-Star break, Batherson WAS the Sens best player and All-Star nominee. Centre Josh Norris is the top goal scorer, with 34, including 16 on the power play. Stützle, with 57 points in 77 games is second in scoring.
What we are seeing here is the cream of the Senators youth rising to the top, all together. There is work to do, of course. Head coach D.J. Smith lamented the giveaways and lax checking in this late-season game, including a couple of gaffes by Stützle.
But that five-man power play unit of Chabot, Tkachuk, Stützle, Batherson and Norris has all of the elements — Tkachuk’s net-front presence, the Norris shot, the puck skills around them — to be one of the best in the NHL. On Tuesday, that group scored twice with the extra man.
If Batherson, who is finally recovering from a nasty flu bug and a high ankle sprain, was the early season revelation (he scored two last night, including a gem in OT), the second half developments mostly centre on Anton Forsberg's goaltending and the blossoming of Stützle, the third overall pick of 2020.
Getting some time on the penalty kill, and thriving there, is just the latest new thrill for Timmy.
“I love it,” Stützle said. “It gets you in the game. If you don’t play the PK, you just sit there.”
Asked why he feels he’s well suited to killing penalties as well as working the power play, Stützle put on his scouting cap for a second.
“My skating, and ability to read plays,” he said. “It helps to play the power play because then you can read their power play, help get pucks out.”
Smith likes the idea of having his best players get at least some time on the kill, even if Stützle may never be the “first one over the boards” when the Sens take a penalty.
“With his hockey sense, it’s hard to pass pucks through him,” Smith said. “We want to use him on the PK, you don’t want your best players frozen on the bench if we get into penalty trouble.”
Apparently, the coach has the ability to step back for a moment and see what we all see in Stützle – a rare player able to take our breath away with his wheeling up ice, his sharp pivots and phenomenal hands. And did we mention he finished the night 2+2 for four points and had four shots on goal?
“He turned a few (pucks) over, but he’s so dynamic offensively, and so good on the power play – he had chances all over the place,” Smith says.
“If you’re the other team watching him, you’re saying - ‘wow, that’s going to be a heck of a hockey player.’ We’re happy to have him.”
Stützle will protect himself
The hot topic when the Montreal Canadiens visited on Saturday was the level of abuse Stützle is taking, on and off the ice.
Brendan Gallagher famously called out Stützle as a diver (hello pot, this is the kettle). The two mixed it up repeatedly in Ottawa’s victory over the Habs. Stützle was the recipient of a nasty knee on knee hit from Nick Suzuki on April 5 in Montreal and just last week in Vancouver was sent flying on a low bridge hit by the Canucks’ Travis Dermott.
This is why Chabot was asked whether or not the Senators need to do more to protect their young asset.
“You want to help him, he’s probably the best player on our team,” Chabot said. “Just to see him play lately, he holds the puck for a full minute on his shift just on his own, he breaks the puck out.
“You want to protect him. He’s young, and we’ve all been through that.”
And then Chabot added something crucial. About how Stützle can “back it up every time.”
The best players in this league get targeted, Chabot said, especially when they’re young.
Gordie Howe used to greet rookies with an elbow to the nose, in a kind of welcome-to-the-NHL moment. The tradition lives. Young players are going to be tested physically to see how they respond.
Stützle has shown he can give it right back. Not that you want him fighting, but you don’t want him cowering, either.
When he gets a little stronger he is going to be a force in every way, and in every situation – even strength, the power play and shorthanded.
And we’ll be able to say we saw it all coming in the 2021-22 season.