TAMPA — His story will always be told the same way. It has to be. You just don't rise up from out of nowhere to become a Hart Trophy winner on a Stanley Cup champion team. And so, yes, the legend of Marty St. Louis was settled long ago.
But do you know what's crazy? In some ways, the later years are just as remarkable as the early days. All this time later, St. Louis is back to defying the odds just as he did as an undrafted free agent more than a decade ago.
Look at the NHL's top 20 or so scoring leaders this morning. You will see Alex Ovechkin, aged 24. And Dany Heatley, aged 28. You will see 23-year-old Evgeni Malkin and 21-year-old Nicklas Backstrom. And in the middle of the bunch is St. Louis, in all of his 34-year-old glory.
It is not a fluke, and it is not likely to change anytime soon. A year ago, he was the oldest player among the NHL's top 20 scorers, and it's a pretty good bet he will not budge in 2009-10.
Five games into the season and St. Louis has three goals and six assists. He showed up again Monday night with a game-tying goal on a power play in the third period against Florida.
"His speed is as good as ever, and I think that's evident if you just watch him," Lightning general manager Brian Lawton said. "The thing that strikes me is Marty is a guy you appreciate the more you see. He's just so serious about everything he does, and he trains so hard.
"I think he's easily got another four good seasons in him. I get calls about him more than any other player we've got. People think we've got (Steven) Stamkos and maybe we're looking to go younger, but as far as I'm concerned, Marty will finish his career in Tampa Bay. He will be here as long as I'm here. Heck, he'll probably be here after I'm gone."
Not too long ago, people in the league figured forwards would begin to see a dropoff in production around 32 or 33. Maybe because of conditioning, that number is now 34 or 35.
But the previous Lightning regime considered St. Louis an even larger risk because of his size and reliance on speed. His contract was frontloaded so most of his money was paid in his early 30s so Tampa Bay wouldn't be stuck with an aging player with a salary that was larger than his production. In retrospect, they miscalculated. St. Louis, at 34, is one of the great bargains in the NHL.
Look at it this way:
St. Louis is one of only seven current players to have scored 60 or more points in six consecutive seasons. The rest of the list is filled with top moneymakers. There is Vincent Lecavalier and his $10 million salary. There is Marian Hossa at $7.9 million, Ilya Kovalchuk at $7.5 million, Joe Thornton at $7.2 million and Daniel Alfredsson and Jarome Iginla, both making $7 million.
St. Louis is drawing $4 million in paychecks this season.
Turns out, the idea that St. Louis might slip in his mid 30s was wrong on two levels. No. 1, he has kept himself in good enough shape that he hasn't lost much, if any, speed. No. 2, his speed was not the only thing that made him a star.
"It sounds kind of weird to say, but I don't think his game is based on speed," Lightning center Jeff Halpern said. "The biggest thing about Marty is he is a smart player, and he has the ability to read and break down defenses and make little quick puck plays most guys aren't able to do. Speed allows him to get to those spots, and dart away, but even without the speed he would be an impact player.
"There are guys like Brett Hull who are able to play close to 40 because of their skills. Marty will always have above-average speed, but it's his thinking that sets him apart."
Is he better at 34 than he was at 24? Not even close, he says. He's much better today. So is he better today than he was at 28, when he was the league MVP? Is he better than he was at 31, when he scored a career-high 102 points?
"I don't know where the peak is. I don't know. I don't look at it that way," St. Louis said. "I just try to be the best I can be, and I'll let people write what they want to write."
A couple of months ago, St. Louis arrived for the start of training camp and was going through the administrative details of checking in when he picked up a Lightning roster. He looked at name after name. He looked at birthdate after birthdate. By the time he reached the end of the page, the kid who showed up as an unwanted free agent on a $250,000 salary nine years ago realized he was now the oldest player on the team.
It seems like a lifetime ago, but the story keeps going on and on.
And so does St. Louis.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.