Senators’ Tim Stutzle vows to be a better and smarter player

Ottawa Senators general manager Steve Staios discusses the team's disappointing season, saying that a year of fighting through hardships could be vital to put the team in position to win in the future.

For the best players, the bar of expectations is set high. 

By most accounts, including his own, the Ottawa Senators‘ top centre, Tim Stützle, had a down year from 2022-23. 

His goals dipped to 18 from 39 and point totals to 70 from 90. 

But he produced a career-high 52 assists and was close to a point-per-game player with 70 points in 75 games. 

Stützle never seemed to be at 100-per-cent health, suffering a wrist injury just four games into the season and then reinjuring a shoulder that had been bothering him dating back to last season. 

If you noticed the kinesiology tape running up the back of  Stützle’s neck, above the collar of his player’s jersey, that was why. 

Metaphorically speaking, no wonder Stützle has weary shoulders. Josh Norris, once thought to be 1, 1A with Stützle at centre for Ottawa, was returning from shoulder surgery and then wrecked his shoulder again, requiring more surgery. And No. 3 centre Shane Pinto missed the first 41 games due to a gambling suspension. As well as rookie Ridly Greig filled in, Stützle has carried a heavy burden. 

Mentally and physically. We know he puts a lot of pressure on himself. 

The parting blow – during an April 4 game against Florida, Stützle received a high hit into the boards from the Panthers’ Niko Mikkola, causing further irritation to that shoulder. 

Stützle would not play in Ottawa’s remaining seven games, finishing his season with a -3 next to his name in a 6-0 rout by Florida. So ends the winter of Tim Stützle’s discontent. 

During last week’s locker cleanout sessions, Stützle talked about his season and the injuries that dogged him. 

“It’s frustrating when your head or your brain is going but your body doesn’t really do the things (it should),” Stützle said. 

You knew he wasn’t going to let himself off that easily. 

“It shouldn’t be an excuse,” Stützle added. “I just wasn’t good enough throughout the year and I’m going to work really hard in the summer and be better next year.”

I don’t doubt he will be. 

Others do. Stützle will earn $8.35 million per year from now until 2031, a contract signed in 2022 that looked like a bargain a year later. It should look like a bargain again next season, although there will always be detractors when a third overall draft pick like Stützle has a setback in year four of his NHL career – four seasons without a playoff berth for a player still finding his overall game. 

It’s the palpable frustration shown that stands out. You could do a meme of Stützle smashing his stick or swearing at the bench after a chance missed. Timmy tantrums. 

“It can be frustrating – I’ve been here four years now, and we really never have been really good,” says Stützle, as unfiltered a player as there is in the Senators’ room. 

When general manager Steve Staois was at the microphone, I asked him about Stützle and his frustration. This was a kid who arrived in Ottawa as happy-go-lucky, remember?

“When you’re a top talent like that, you feel like you can make an impact on every shift,” said Staios. “So, when it doesn’t happen, that’s the frustration. That will be the growth for Tim. 

“And we know it’s coming. How can we help him? How can we support and expedite that growth, that maturity, you know. It does take time, but we’ve talked – I’ve talked to him specifically about that. His intentions are to go out there and help the Ottawa Senators on every single shift, using his God-given talents. So, when it doesn’t happen for him, there’s some frustration. 

“He’s going to learn to channel that in the right way.”

Stützle consults with assistant coach Daniel Alfredsson. And why wouldn’t he?

Like Alfredsson, Stützle came from European hockey into the best league in the world. Stützle grew up in Germany, Alfredsson in Sweden. 

Unlike Alfie, Stützle knew all about the NHL, given the coverage and internet options today. 

Stützle was hyped as a prospect and was the third overall selection by the Senators in 2020. 

Alfredsson, who would develop into a Hall of Fame winger, knew almost nothing about the NHL and didn’t even attend the 1994 draft where he was the 133rd player chosen. 

He was a 22-year-old draftee and close to 23 when he first played an NHL game. 

Stützle was an NHL rookie at 18. He’s still only 22 – participating in 285 NHL games before Alfie had seen his first at that age. 

There are pluses and minuses to that. Alfredsson was a man. At five-foot-11, not quite as tall as Stützle but rock solid, especially in the trunk. Teammates Alfredsson and Andreas Dackell used to joke about how tough they were to move off the puck because of their wide rear ends. 

In contrast, Stützle was a skinny kid when he arrived and has taken a bit of a beating in four years, although he has grown physically stronger. 

This past October, Alfredsson started skating with the Senators at practice and in late December, he stepped behind the bench in an official capacity as an assistant to interim head coach Jacques Martin. 

Together, they tried to instill a system and a defensive mindset onto the team and in individual players. 

Chief among them is Stützle, who is the very symbol of this Ottawa rebuild as the highest draft selection for the club since Jason Spezza in 2001. Spezza would become Alfredsson’s centre and alongside Dany Heatley became one of the highest scoring lines in hockey. 

Not far behind Stützle in rebuild draft order were Jake Sanderson (fifth overall, 2020) and Brady Tkachuk (fourth overall, 2018). Meet the Core 3 – Captain Crunch Tkachuk, elite defenceman Sanderson and the dipsy-doodler Stützle. Of the three, his development is the least complete.

“I talk to Alfie a lot,” Stützle told us. “His career is really impressive – the way he handles himself, the way he talks about himself and the games he played.”

Alfredsson posed a challenge to his young understudy. Try to find a game among Alfie’s 1,200 played (1,246 to be exact, plus 124 in the playoffs) where he cheated for offence. 

“He said, ‘pick any game from zero to 1,200 and we’re going to watch it,’” Stützle said. “‘I always gave an honest effort, always played on the right side of the puck.’”

The message: there is a lot more to the team game than scoring goals. 

“I want to be a 200-foot player in the league,” Stützle says. “I feel like I’m playing my best game when I’m on top of my defence. Not only getting points, but getting these wins.”

In particular, Stützle says he wants to be better at anticipating the moves and plays of his top opponents, and of enemy goaltenders. Be a student of the game. 

He will also want to stay on his feet more. 

Whether he likes it or not, Stützle has a reputation for going down too easily. And not just among the Montreal Canadiens fans who lose their minds when No. 18 gets tripped by a Habs player. Three different Atlantic Division coaches made diving accusations from the bench at Stützle this season. 

Alfredsson stood up for his guy, saying it’s easy to make allegations when a player loses his feet. 

“He plays with so much motion,” Alfredsson said. “I go back to myself, I had incidents where I wasn’t as strong on my skates as I should have been. But I don’t think that’s the case for Tim, he’s been really good that way.” 

Behind the scenes, though, Alfredsson and others have spoken to Stützle about staying upright. He does draw penalties, by holding onto pucks and stickhandling around opponents. But his coaches want him battling for pucks and you can’t do that when you’re down on the ice. If a penalty is not called, the puck is going the other direction. Fast. 

Perhaps for the first time in his young NHL career, Stützle is receiving some tough love from the likes of Martin and Alfredsson. 

Former head coach D.J. Smith was relentless in his proclamations that “Timmy is going to be a superstar in this league.” If he didn’t tell us every day, he told us every week. 

As we have learned, and as Stützle is learning, skill only goes so far. 

Watch some playoff hockey tonight. Feel the grind coming right through the TV screen. No room for frustration. Just insanely intense battles. 

Ottawa’s young players need to prepare for it. 

“I think I can be better at (everything),” Stützle says. “I can be a better teammate, better leader, better hockey player. All we’ve got to do is care more and work hard, be ready at camp. 

“We’ve got to play some hard hockey.”

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