Nothing soft about new Penguins right winger Steve Downie



Rick Tocchet, like many people in his industry, has seen the dark side of Steve Downie.

The breakdowns in discipline that get him penalized.

The lapses in judgment that get him suspended.

The loss of self-control that can turn him into a liability on the ice.

But Tocchet, who joined the Penguins as an assistant coach last week, knows all about another side of Downie, a free-agent right winger who accepted a one-year, $1 million contract Wednesday with the Penguins.

He has seen — and coached — Downie when he was a guy who fit in very nicely on a line with Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis with Tampa Bay a few years back.

A guy who scored 22 goals in 2009-10 for the Lightning and who, with a lot of coaching and mentoring from Tocchet, managed to exorcise many of the negative aspects from his game.

“He played excellent for me,” Tocchet said. “That’s the memory I have of him.”

Indeed, Tocchet has seen enough of Downie’s potential that he to believes it would be misguided to pigeonhole him as a bottom-six forward.

“It’s not out of the question for him to be able to play with Sidney Crosby some of the time,” Tocchet said.

The irony of that is that a game at Tampa in March 2010, Downie was accused — quite properly, based on the video evidence — of trying to injure Crosby while checking him. He ended up being fined $1,000 for that incident.

Such violent acts, headlined by a nasty hit to the head on Ottawa’s Dean McAmmond in a preseason game in 2007 that earned Downie a 20-game suspension, have defined much of his career, but there are other layers.

Like how he overcame severe hearing impairment to reach the NHL. And how he responded so well to the time and effort Tocchet invested in trying to make him a reliable and responsible player.

Tocchet not only worked with Downie on the ice during their time together in Tampa, but made a point of connecting with him on a personal level on a daily basis, even if it simply was to ask what movie Downie had watched the previous evening.

They developed a rapport that coaxed the best out of Downie that he had to give, and the Penguins likely will have Tocchet try to reestablish that relationship here.

Downie, 27, had three goals and 14 assists in 51 games with the Flyers in 2013-14, after being acquired from Colorado, where he had one goal and six assists in 11 games.

It was a forgettable season, in part because of physical issues that Downie never raised in public.

“He never mentioned anything about any of those injuries affecting his play,” said Tocchet, who worked as a broadcaster in Philadelphia last season. “He just said he had to play better.”

Tocchet said Downie has undergone surgeries this summer to deal with knee and balance problems and that he has been working out under the direction of former Penguins player Gary Roberts, whose training regimen is famously rigorous.

Although Downie’s acquisition generated considerable reaction, positive and negative, among the Penguins fan base, defenseman Christian Ehrhoff remains their most significant pickup of this free-agency period.

He accepted a one-year, $4 million contract Tuesday, just two days after learning that Buffalo planned to buy out the final seven season of his 10-year deal there.

Ehrhoff, speaking on a conference call, said Wednesday he had expected the Sabres to trade him this summer, but “was really surprised” to learn he was being bought out.

He didn’t balk, however, upon learning that the Penguins wanted to sign him.

“I thought Pittsburgh was the best fit for me,” he said. “The best chance for a shot at the Stanley Cup.”

Although the Penguins are in the midst of a chaotic offseason — they have a new general manager, coach and two assistant coaches and have undergone major roster upheaval — Ehrhoff said he is not worried that they might not be as formidable as in most recent seasons.

“It’s not really a big concern for me,” he said.

“It’s obviously a fresh start for everybody.”

No one more than Steve Downie.

•NOTES — The Downie signing leaves the Penguins with 18 players (three of them goalies) under contract and about $7.3 million in salary-cap space. Six restricted free agents, including forwards Brandon Sutter and Nick Spaling and defenseman Simon Despres, must be re-signed. … Right winger Chuck Kobasew, who played 33 games with the Penguins last season and scored the winning goal in each of their first two games, signed with SC Bern in Switzerland. He finished 2013-14 with their minor league team in Wilkes-Barre.


Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published July 2, 2014 12:00 AM

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