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Tampa Bay Lightning's Steve Downie continues to mature

Not only does Lightning wing Steve Downie have to continue to keep his volatile temper in check, he faces the challenge of improving on his career-best 22 goals and 46 points of last season. Downie can be a top-six player in the league, goalie Mike Smith says.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Not only does Lightning wing Steve Downie have to continue to keep his volatile temper in check, he faces the challenge of improving on his career-best 22 goals and 46 points of last season. Downie can be a top-six player in the league, goalie Mike Smith says.

TAMPA — There were a couple of small moments in the Lightning's preseason victory over the Panthers on Saturday that were easy to miss but important in Steve Downie's development.

Twice the right wing was challenged physically. Twice he skated away.

"He showed he's smart," coach Guy Boucher said, "and he is maturing."

And finding a comfort zone with his new coach, who has as little patience for dumb penalties as last season's bench boss, Rick Tocchet, and is on Downie just as hard to avoid them.

Downie lost an advocate when Tocchet was fired after the season. Tocchet's hands-on approach was critical as Downie learned to control his volatile on-ice emotions that earlier in his career led to several high-profile suspensions.

So it raised a few eyebrows when Boucher benched Downie in the preseason opener against the Stars for taking a gratuitous slashing penalty behind the play.

That is why what Downie did, or didn't do, against Florida was so significant.

"I sat down with him at the start of the year, and I've been talking to him since then that we need his drive on the ice, not off the ice in the penalty box," Boucher said. "We want to have a team that is totally focused. The minute you get guys who are riled up, then you don't have a focused team, and he's really bought into that."

For his part, Downie, 23, doesn't get the big deal, especially the benching in Dallas.

"I would have sat myself, too," he said this week at the St. Pete Times Forum. "You don't want to take penalties, but I knew that. It was the emotions of the moment, an exhibition game."

He also doesn't understand why his past transgressions are still part of the conversation, especially after a breakout 2009-10, when he had a career-best 22 goals and despite 208 penalty minutes, third in the league, he generally avoided selfish, retaliatory penalties.

The thing is, the Dallas slashing penalty was exactly the kind of brain cramp Downie can't afford.

Tocchet has said he literally grabbed Downie by the shoulders on the bench when he saw the player's emotions starting to boil. Boucher said he uses conversation as "prevention. … We didn't want to wait for it to happen, so we talked about how to react, and he's done great."

"It's a new start. It's a fresh start. It's a new coach," said Downie, who in August signed a two-year, $3.7 million contract. "Coach knows what he wants, and I like that about him. There's no gray areas. You know what to give him and what he expects."

Downie's teammates have expectations as well,

Goalie Mike Smith said the Newmarket, Ontario, native, who digs pucks from corners and isn't afraid of the front of the net, "has all the tools to be a top-six guy in this league for a lot of years."

And Downie's career-best 46 points last season, seven power-play goals and plus-14 show he is on the right track. But as Smith said, "He has to come back and match it, if not get better. One year doesn't make a career."

Or erase a reputation.

"That's the one part of his game, he can't get in the box too much," linemate Marty St. Louis said. "He's made strides, but you make those strides when you're in those situations. When that happens, he just has to be smart."

Like Downie was against the Panthers, against whom he also made a terrific play, fighting through two players to get the puck to Steven Stamkos, who scored the winner in a 4-1 victory.

"Last year was a year where he started to change," Boucher said. "This year he's changing a lot. Plus, he knows if it's not a bright penalty, he's going to sit. That's what happened to him in Dallas, and we haven't seen it since."

MOVING DAY: Defenseman Mathieu Roy cleared waivers and was assigned to AHL Norfolk.

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Lightning's Steve Downie continues to mature 10/06/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 6, 2010 10:58pm]
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