PHILADELPHIA — Steve Downie will be defined by the incident in juniors, the incident with Dean McAmmond, the incident at Norfolk, until his play merits a rewrite of what has been a short but disturbing hockey career.
The 21-year-old right wing says he is grateful the Lightning gave him an opportunity to do so. Team coaches and officials seem intrigued by his potential, confident their offering of a "clean slate," without prejudgments or stipulations, will give the gritty agitator with a knack for performing the thankless jobs a chance to make his past go away. Now it's up to him.
"It's behind me, my past," Downie said Monday. "I'm looking forward here."
The Lightning acquired Downie, a first-round draft pick of Philadelphia in 2005, from the Flyers in a deal for Matt Carle on Nov. 7 because he has hinted at offensive contribution — 17 points in 21 games in the AHL last year — while maintaining a grinder's edge. But finding the line where aggression ends and violence begins has been beyond him on three notable occasions.
• Playing for the Flyers in a 2007 preseason game, he was suspended 20 games — one of the longest sanctions in NHL history — after leaving his feet to plaster Ottawa's McAmmond with a blow to the head.
• As captain of his Windsor juniors team in the Ontario Hockey League in 2005, he cross-checked in the mouth Akim Aliu, who had refused to participate in a hazing ritual, fought him when the rookie returned to the ice, was suspended five games and ordered to undertake anger management. He and Aliu have since reconciled.
• Last month, playing for the Lightning's AHL affiliate in Norfolk, he was suspended three games for hitting Worcester's Kyle McLaren from behind.
Still, Lightning executive vice president of hockey operations Brian Lawton said he did not hesitate to make the trade and said the team could use Downie's gumption.
"His problems are problems in the past," he said. "It's what he does from here forward as to how he'll be judged, and there's a determination to be made."
Former players and coaches call Downie "a good kid" and his demeanor off the ice belies his reputation. His has been a complex life, and hockey has been entwined with joy and pain. His father was killed driving him to hockey practice when Downie was 7. He was unhurt.
Darren Rumble, coach of the Lightning's AHL affiliate in Norfolk, said Downie was "confused, hesitant" about his role after the recent suspension, but the Lightning has instructed him to seek and finish hits. And to start over.
"For me, I'd rather have a guy who's made a few mistakes and learned from them than one who's never made a mistake," Rumble said.
"I got to continue my physical play," Downie said. "I'm not saying I should make those (illegal) hits. I definitely shouldn't be doing hits like that, but I can't let that affect my physical game, and I just have to keep going."
Interim coach Rick Tocchet, a former tough guy who learned to balance edge with control, was pleased after Downie blocked a shot and created a breakaway in his Lightning debut in Minnesota. The Lightning sees Downie evolving into a third-liner with improved conditioning and better judgment. It's hard to say which is more important.
"He's got no more get out of jail free cards," Tocchet said.
Yikes: The Lightning saw a scary movie — some of its defensive play — Monday after a practice session at the Wachovia Center. Coaches underscored the ease with which opponents are entering the offensive zone. "Video doesn't lie, and so we made sure that they knew that, and we reinforced that with the practice," Tocchet said.
Transition: The Lightning's league-worst 2.26 goals per game average is an obvious symptom of its last-place standing in the league, points-wise. But so is the fact it has allowed at least 30 shots (the Avalanche had 31) in all but one game this season. LW Gary Roberts said the Lightning must make the transition from defense to offense better.
"We've got to clean up our own end first," he said. "If you do that, you'd be amazed how many more scoring opportunities you get on the other end. Our goalies have been exceptional this season, and we haven't played that well in front of them, so we need to bail them out once in a while, too."
Odds and ends: Roberts, 42, in practice injured the same right groin as last season and would seem doubtful to play tonight. Roberts returned to the lineup Saturday at Colorado after missing four games with an upper-body injury.