Mike Johnson was starting his second season with the Lightning in September 2000 when Marty St. Louis came to training camp.
As Johnson recently recalled, it wasn't 10 days before that he and teammate Todd Warriner concluded St. Louis "is the best small guy we had been around."
Mind you, the 5-foot-7 St. Louis, cut loose the previous summer by the Flames, had yet to play a game for Tampa Bay. And Johnson and Warriner in 1998-99 played in Toronto with 5-9 Steve Sullivan, an eight-time 20-goal scorer and two-time 30-goal scorer.
"But we recognized right away how dynamic he was," Johnson said of St. Louis.
It might be instructive, then, that Johnson, 13 years later as an analyst for NHL Network and Canada's TSN, said he realizes this about his former teammate: "He's a Hall of Famer."
That will be the debate, after all, as St. Louis, 38 in June and the greatest points producer in Lightning history, gets closer to retirement.
But several prominent analysts said St. Louis, who this season earned his second points championship — and the oldest player to win the Art Ross Trophy — might already have solidified his admission to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
"No question," said the NHL Network's Craig Button, the former Flames general manager who let St. Louis go as part of an organizational housecleaning. When you accomplish what Marty St. Louis has accomplished, you're not just in the discussion, you become prominent in the discussion."
In addition to his two points titles, St. Louis, a right wing, was the league's most valuable player in 2004. He won a Stanley Cup in 2004 and Lady Byng trophies for sportsmanship coupled with high level of play in 2010 and '11.
He is up for that honor again this season and the Ted Lindsay Award for most outstanding player as voted by the players after a year in which with 60 points in 48 games he became just the third player 37 or older to average 1.25 points. The others: Mario Lemieux in 2002-03 and Gordie Howe in 1968-69.
St. Louis needs 21 games to reach 1,000, and his 340 goals, 572 assists and 912 points compare well with Hall of Fame right wings Cam Neely, Rod Gilbert and Pavel Bure. Imagine St. Louis' numbers had he not lost a season-and-a-half to owner lockouts.
There also is this, said Scott Morrison of Canada's Sportsnet: "He's been a terrific player, I don't want to say in two different eras, but in two different games."
St. Louis "thrived and survived in the big-man game" played before the 2004-05 lockout when clutching, grabbing, hooking and slashes to wrists and ankles were rampant, Morrison explained. "And he's been terrific in the transition game we have now."
Only one player who has won the Art Ross and is eligible for the Hall of Fame is not in: Herb Cain (1943-44). As for that second Art Ross, "That may be the exclamation mark on it," Morrison added. "But again, to do it in two different games, that's the clincher, for sure."
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Players are eligible for the Hall of Fame three years after their careers end. At least 14 votes from an 18-member selection committee are needed.
A maximum of four male and two female players can be enshrined per year, meaning the Hall is fairly exclusive. Its 370 members include 255 players, 100 builders and 15 referees/linesmen. But it also creates a backlog of players waiting to get in.
It took former Lightning player Dino Ciccarelli eight years to be elected in 2010 despite 608 career goals. Former Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk, with 640 goals, 14th all time, has been eligible since 2009.
So with St. Louis under contract through 2014-15 and no guarantee he will retire when it expires, his candidacy likely is well down the road.
"To be a Hall of Famer, that's something I don't think you're thinking about when you come into the league. You're just trying to find your own way," St. Louis said. "But as you progress in your career and do good things you're like, 'You know what? It would be something special.'
"I'm going to work the best I can, play the best I can, to get a chance to be in there."
And more work might be needed if his inclusion is to be a slam dunk, said Red Wings vice president Jim Devellano, a regular at Lightning home games.
"Goals, assists and points are very important," Devellano said. "If he can play another three or four years and add to those numbers, it will give him one hell of a chance."
Whatever happens, he added, considering St. Louis was undrafted out of the University of Vermont, didn't make it out of the Senators' 1997-98 training camp, was overlooked by the Flames, and in the summer of 2000 was signed by then-Lightning GM Rick Dudley for just $250,000, what he has accomplished "is phenomenal."
"You always knew he had the skill and the will," Johnson said. "It was just a question of putting it all together. And he has."
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]