Try to imagine being in the kid’s shoes.
The shoes of Kid Stützle. As they might say in Germany, das wunderkind.
The fantasy can end quickly, trying to picture oneself with the hockey skill of Tim Stützle.
Beyond that, though, is the personal story.
At 18, you are drafted third overall by the Ottawa Senators and, a week later, you break your hand during training camp with your German League team, Mannheim. Though not fully healed, you manage a practice or two before leaving your native country two weeks before Christmas to play in the world junior tournament in Edmonton.
En route, several of your teammates contract COVID-19, resulting in a quarantine and a weakened roster. Nevertheless, you are Tim Stützle, so you dominate the tournament anyway. And on Dec. 27, you sign a professional contract with the Ottawa Senators.
So now you know you’re not going back to Germany, but rather straight to Ottawa where — after yet another quarantine due to protocols — you catch the final week of training camp and play back-to-back games against the Toronto Maple Leafs, one of the favourites in the new Canadian division. You do more than hold your own in those games — in game two, on Hockey Night in Canada, you score one of the most beautiful first-goals anyone can remember.
Displaying a hand-eye that Sidney Crosby would appreciate, Stützle took an aerial pass that he let just brush the ice before one-timing it like an expert cricket batsman. A one-hopper was converted to high cheese, on the short side, past Leafs goaltender Jack Campbell. As the puck sailed thirty feet in the air before descent, and the kid started to swing his stick in anticipation, teammate Josh Norris sat on the Senators bench and thought to himself, “There’s no way he’s actually going to hit this thing.”
Winger Drake Batherson: “It was pretty unreal. You see guys on Instagram, throw the puck up and try to catch it just as it hits the surface and that’s what he did, in the middle of his second NHL game. Pretty unbelievable. You could see how fired up he was and he’s a great kid, I’m happy it went in for him.
Just like that, Stützle goes in the club record books as the third-youngest Senator, at 19 years and one day, to score his first goal in the NHL.
“It was a puck that was pretty high in the air and I just wanted to get the puck to the net. I think I hit it pretty good and it went in,” Stützle said, a verbal downplay of a moment that had him celebrating like the teenager he is, arms pumping and then a blur of high-fived gloves at the bench.
“It was definitely a great feeling, but in the end I really wanted to come out with the win,” he said. “I thought after the goal we had an extra push, everybody really wanted to get that third goal. We played really well in the last couple of minutes.”
Stützle agreed his comfort level was much higher in the second game, a 3-2 loss to Toronto on Saturday after Friday’s demonstrative 5-3 win in the opener.
“I felt better making my plays — I’m kind of a creative player, so I want to have the puck and make plays,” Stützle said. “I thought I played with more confidence and it worked out pretty good.”
While his work in the defensive zone will come in time, it was apparent on opening weekend that das wunderkind belongs in this league.
Oh, and if there was any doubt about Stützle, who celebrated his 19th birthday on opening night, being able to stand up to the physical going, there was the sight of him rocking John Tavares with a body check in game one and bumping big Jake Muzzin off the puck late in game two (for which Stützle was given a cheap penalty … rookie baptism?).
Head coach D.J. Smith was suitably impressed with the rookie, who skated on the second line with veterans Derek Stepan and Evgenii Dadonov. After playing 12:11 with 1:26 of power play time Friday, Stützle was bumped up to 14:52 and 2:11 on the PP on Saturday.
Smith was just as relieved for the kid as he was pleased for the kid, to get that goal out of the way. And no cheapie, either.
“It was a heck of a goal,” Smith said. “They (the Leafs) carried the play for the majority of the game and all of a sudden he draws us within one. “You could see how excited he was to get out there. He’s going to be a special player in time. It’s great that he gets that out of the way for himself.”
Like the rest of us, Smith is somewhat gobsmacked by Stützle’s maturity at 19. Very few rookies could have missed the first week of camp due to quarantine and come out of the gate like that. Quarantine and a minor injury derailed defence prospect Erik Brannstrom.
“It’s tough to come in here — a bunch of new people and only have a few practices and play the Toronto Maple Leafs (twice),” Smith said of Stützle. “You can see in the o-zone, he’s starting to make some plays. And he’s starting to skate with the puck. He’s getting more comfortable. In time, he will just get bigger, stronger and better. He’ll make those reads and will really help your power play when it’s time to go.
“It’s good for him to get a day off (Sunday). Turn his brain off and he’ll get a practice and we’ll get him back going against Winnipeg (on Tuesday).”
Stützle was indeed back on the practice ice Monday, again on the second line with Stepan and Dadonov. The whirlwind ensues. Up next are the incoming Jets on Tuesday and Thursday at the Canadian Tire Centre.
“Everything went very fast right after the world juniors,” Stützle admits. “There has been a lot of stuff to learn. I try to learn from the veterans. We have such a great team and everybody supports each other. It’s a lot of fun to be here right now.”
He’s even getting help in the clothing department. Housemate Brady Tkachuk loaned Stützle a sports coat to wear to the rink for game night. (“The smallest one I could find,” the 6-4, 215-pound Tkachuk told Kyle Bukauskas of HNIC).
Fans in Ottawa will agree. Stützle is very much in vogue in 2021, on and off the ice.
On the Jets and on the red dot
While the Senators held their own against the Leafs in their first two games, and Smith was especially pleased with his team’s play away from the puck in Ottawa’s end, there were exceptions. Smith spent a lot of Monday’s practice working on breakouts. “We didn’t handle the puck enough, so we did a lot of drills with the puck.”
Also, after looking pretty good on the power play in game one, Ottawa was 0-for-5 on Saturday.
Smith said his team went away from the script and made some “young” mistakes.
“We went a little rogue out there,” he said.
Their faceoff percentage also deteriorated, from 45 per cent in game one to 38 per cent in game two. Former Ottawa captain Jason Spezza basically devoured the Senators centre men, going 10-0 in the circle.
“Toronto has some elite faceoff guys with Spezza, (John) Tavares and (Auston) Matthews against (our) younger lineup,” Smith said. “They took it to us in the circle, certainly throughout those two games.”
It doesn’t get a lot easier with Winnipeg coming in, albeit in a back-to-back after playing in Toronto on Monday night.
“We’ve got another group of veteran centres coming in here in (Mark) Scheifele, (Adam) Lowry, (Nate) Thompson and (Paul) Stastny,” Smith said.
“So it’s going to be a battle in there. We’re going to have to dig in and find a way to win some faceoffs. That’s part of playing in a division with a bunch of older teams. You’ve got guys that are good at it and we’ve got to get better.”
Tkachuk on power play faceoffs
Winger Brady Tkachuk took four draws on Saturday, winning just one, but he could be a regular feature on power play draws in the future.
“We think Brady is big and strong enough to eventually win draws on a regular basis,” Smith said.
Backup Hogberg bides his time
Smith said he started No. 1 goaltender Matt Murray in both weekend games because he only faced 23 shots from Toronto on Friday. Whether backup Marcus Hogberg sees any action against the Jets this week, Tuesday or Thursday, remains to be seen.
“He’s going to be a part of it,” Smith said of Hogberg. “Fifty-six games in a short period of time — he’s going to have to play some games. We don’t want to wear out Murray right away but we’ve kind of got a little schedule we’ve looked at and we’ll follow that.”