On Defence, Streit never rests


Mark Streit knew that he could play defence against the top players in the world.


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Mark Streit knew that he could play defence against the top players in the world.

The problem was finding a team that shared the belief.

He realized last season that the Canadiens weren't that team.

"I loved Montreal and the Canadiens gave me a chance to play in the National Hockey League, but I knew that I wasn't going to get a chance to play defence on a regular basis," Streit said on the eve of last night's game between the Canadiens and the New York Islanders.

"They would use me as a defenceman but as soon as I made a mistake, I found myself on the bench or playing up front again," Streit said. "I knew in Montreal, I wouldn't go anywhere. I would have that same role for the next how many years. I had a great time in Montreal but, at the end of the day, I wasn't really fulfilled."

Streit's desire to play defence on a regular basis led to his decision to exercise his rights as an unrestricted free agent and he signed with the Islanders on July 1.

Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey, who has a reputation for not negotiating with impending free agents during the regular season, made an exception. He extended an offer to the Swiss native last November but, as Streit recalled, "it wasn't a good offer."

Streit said he kept an open mind and he saw several scenarios which involved staying in Montreal. But, as he proved to be more than an adequate replacement for Sheldon Souray as the triggerman on the No. 1 power play in the NHL, he realized that his value was going up.

But even he didn't realize how much he would command on the open market.

"I thought that if I could get $2 million or $2.5 million for three years (from Montreal) during the season, I probably would have signed," said Streit, who eventually signed a five-year deal with the Islanders worth $4.1 million U.S. a season. That's a considerable raise from the $600,000 he earned last season with the Canadiens.

"I had about 10 teams that were interested in me and it eventually came down to the Islanders," said Streit. "I liked the people and they came up with the best offer."

As for the Canadiens, Streit said they told him in June that they would get back to him with an offer but it never materialized.

Switzerland isn't known for producing NHL players.

When Streit was growing up, he dreamed about playing against the best in the world, but it took him three tries to establish himself in North America.

His first attempt stalled before it began. He was offered a hockey scholarship to a U.S. university but he changed his mind at the last moment and turned pro at age 17 with Fribourg-Gotteron in the Swiss League.

He did come to North America when he was 21 and received a lesson in U.S. geography. He spent most of the 1999-2000 season playing for the Springfield Falcons of the American Hockey League but also saw action with the Tallahassee Tiger Sharks in the East Coast Hockey League and the Utah Grizzlies in the International Hockey League.

Streit had three goals and 12 assists in 47 AHL games. Those numbers didn't excite the NHL scouts who were already predisposed to dismiss him because he wasn't very big and he definitely wasn't very physical.

He went back to Switzerland where he established himself as an offensive defenceman with the Zurich Lions and the Swiss national team.

Streit's hopes for an NHL career were revived during the lockout year. The Canadiens spotted him playing for Switzerland and felt that he was worth a minor gamble. They used their ninth-round pick (262nd overall) in the 2004 draft to select Streit.

That got Streit thinking that an NHL career might be possible but it was his experience during the lockout which boosted his confidence.

"I had played against NHL players at the world championships and now they had all these NHL players coming to play in Europe and I had a chance to compete on a regular basis with guys like Rick Nash," Streit said. "I knew that I could play against these guys."

That belief was reinforced by Andy Sutton, who is Streit's current defence partner with the Islanders. Streit and Sutton were teammates with the Zurich Lions during the lockout and, during Sutton's first week in Switzerland, he told his wife that there was one guy on the ice who was so good, "I can't believe he's not in the NHL." It was Streit.

At the end of the season, Sutton strongly urged him to give the NHL a good shot. He took that assurance with him when he went to Montreal.

"Obviously, it was always my dream and my goal to play in the NHL," Streit said. "But when you have guys like that who have played in the NHL a long time who tell you: 'You know, you have the ability, just go over and do it,' that gives you a lot of confidence."

Streit arrived in Montreal in 2005 as a 27-year-old rookie. He signed for the NHL minimum of $450,000, less than half of what he commanded in the Swiss League, but he was determined to follow his dream. He played in 48 games as a defenceman, collecting a pair of goals and nine assists.

"I was happy because when I came to camp nobody expected me to make the team," Streit said.

In 2006-07, coach Guy Carbonneau devised a new role for Streit. The coach liked the idea of dressing seven defencemen and using one as a forward. Streit played as a defenceman on occasion but most of his time was spent up front where his versatility became evident. He played on each of the four lines, scored 10 goals and set an NHL record for Swiss-trained players with 36 points.

His role expanded last season after Souray took advantage of his free-agent status and took his booming shot to Edmonton. There were fears that the No. 1 power play in the NHL would collapse without Souray but Streit moved to the right point and the power play was even better. Streit had 13 goals and 62 points - 34 of them on the power play.

But he was disenchanted with the way he was being employed. He played only a handful of games on defence and felt he wasn't accorded enough respect.

Said Streit: "They said: 'He's not good enough defensively. But I never got the chance to play 20 or 30 games and show what I can do and learn."

Streit is getting that chance with the Islanders. He's averaging more than 26 minutes a game - only eight players see more ice time than he does and he's proving that he can be a top-four defenceman.

"When we signed him, I think we thought that his main contribution would be on the power play but he's proven to a solid performer on defence," said rookie head coach Scott Gordon.

Streit is the Islanders' leading scorer with nine points in 10 games. He scored a power-play goal against the Canadiens last night but the Islanders are still struggling with the extra man.

They ranked 29th last season with a 14.6-per-cent success rate. This year's Islanders are 28th with a success rate of a 15.8 per cent.

Gordon said a rash of injuries to the defence corps has increased Streit's workload.

"We've had two or three defencemen out since the start of the season but even when we're healthy, Mark will be seeing a lot of ice time," said Gordon, whose current injury list includes defencemen Radek Martinek, Brendan Witt and Frederick Meyer IV.

"He may not play 27 or 28 minutes like he does now but he'll play a lot. He's a smart player and I was surprised how well he's handled the time. There's no dropoff in his play at the end of the game. He's in great shape."

"This is the way I was used to playing in Switzerland," Streit said.

By his own admission, Streit is an offensive defenceman and he'll never be a big hitter like the Canadiens' Mike Komiarek or Calgary's Dion Phaneuf. But Streit has made an effort to play a more physical game.

"I want to be known as an all-around defenceman and part of that is playing physical," Streit said.

Streit has also found a comfort level off the ice.

He said the quality of life on Long Island reminds him of Switzerland although you can drive the 205-kilometre length of the island without seeing a mountain, or even a good-sized hill.

He lives in an apartment in the affluent suburb of Garden City, which is a 10-minute drive from the rink.

"It's a pretty quiet place but if I want excitement, New York City isn't far away," said Streit.

When a New York reporter suggested that one could get in trouble in the Big Apple, Streit grinned and said: "If I didn't get in trouble in Montreal, I think I can handle New York."

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