At some point, it became necessary for me to write an article full of effusive praise for Mark Stone. I can't pinpoint the exact moment at which I became a convert, but it probably started when he showed uncommon patience in finding Jason Spezza for a goal in his first career NHL game, game 5 of the 2012 first round series against the New York Rangers. You may remember it:
To go through a defender's legs and hit Spezza on the tape like that is one heck of a pass. It's a heck of a pass for anyone, let alone someone playing in their first NHL game. Foreshadowing: Mark Stone has fantastic vision and puck skills. But we'll get to that later.
I'm probably getting ahead of myself when I say that Stone looks like the real deal, the kid's only played 28 games in the NHL after all, but damned if I can't help it. I have a soft spot for players with superior play-making abilities, and though he was scouted as a rugged power forward it's been his superb vision and anticipation that's marked his ascendancy to the Senators' top line. He's fit right in beside Kyle Turris and Clarke MacArthur; he's been so effective that he's allowed coach Paul MacLean to break up his most productive trio from last season in Turris-MacArthur-Ryan.
Today it's easy to say things like "We knew Stone was going to turn out all along", but that just simply isn't the case. In fact, it wasn't until the World Junior Championships in 2011-12 when Stone broke out by scoring 7 goals and 10 points in 6 games that he really surfaced on a lot of Sens fans' radars. Remember: he was chosen in the 6th round, so late that he was worried that he might not be selected at all. As the story goes, it took a lot of convincing from team scout Bob Lowes for the Senators to settle on Stone at all. From an article by Scott Fischer that appeared around the time of Stone's breakout performance at the World Juniors:
Stone said once he got the call from the Senators, he's been determined to prove Lowes didn't make a mistake.
"I was getting pretty nervous that I wasn't going to get drafted," Stone said. "(Lowes) had the confidence to get me into the Ottawa organization, so I owe a lot to him"
Why did it take so much to even get the kid drafted? The reasons are many, but can essentially be boiled down to two: he was injured in his draft year, and there were questions about his skating ability. To be frank, when I opened this article by stating that I am now a Mark Stone convert I did so because I too didn't have much confidence that he would turn out the way he has. He didn't exactly dominate junior until he was 19, which is not usually a good sign for someone projected to be in a team's top 6. When he did make it up to the show, my initial impressions of him was that he looked like he had the necessary puck skills but that he just wasn't a good enough skater. I've long been of the opinion that by the time skaters turn 19 or 20, that they are who they are to a large degree. On this count, Mark Stone has proven me and many others wrong. I can't remember the last time a player has so fundamentally changed one of their basic skills, in this case his skating ability. Stone has been one of the best surprises of the early part of the season for Sens' fans, and I see no reason to believe that won't continue.
Back to that vision and patience --it's on display every time Mark Stone touches the puck. In this way, he is actually strikingly similar to his new line-mate and fan favourite Clarke MacArthur. Stone seldom bangs the puck off the glass and out on the break-out, and he often attacks the opposing blueline with control. By rarely needlessly relinquishing control of the puck, Stone generates possession and scoring chances. For a team that so far has been shelled at even strength, Stone's been one of the few bright spots with a 51.47 CF%. The underlying numbers back up the eye test on this one too; it's early, but Stone's tied for third among forwards on the team in total number of successful attacking zone entries with control, and only MacArthur and Turris have a higher relative percentage than Stone. This is just a continuation of last year's trend when Stone finished 6th among forwards on the squad in relative percentage of controlled entries, behind only the aforementioned Turris and MacArthur, as well as Bobby Ryan and the now departed Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky. In short, he's looking like a skilled NHL forward.
N.B: all stats above courtesy of the indispensable senstats.com.
Let's try to marry the stats to the eye test for a minute, shall we? I've dug up what I consider to be a good example of a shift during which Stone shows off his unusual patience and vision on two separate occasions. Starting at approximately the 17:40 mark of the first period against Colorado last Thursday, Stone has a brilliant sequence beginning with this retrieval of the puck behind the net following a Clarke MacArthur chase and tip:
You can see Stone sizing up the play as he curls off the end -boards with the puck on his backhand. Notice Erik Karlsson (partially obscured by the omnipresent controller, thanks GCL!) in prime shooting position as the Colorado winger has collapsed to the hash marks to help support the puck. Stone takes it all in and throws the puck back to the point off his backhand via a delicious bounce pass:
You can't really see it because the puck is obscured by the boards, but Stone squeezes it past the Colorado winger to Karlsson at the point. This is not an easy play, but for someone with Stone's skill it's how you go from a simple dump play to a shot on net. Lots of other players would have recycled the puck behind the net to try to re-start the cycle. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but this type of skill gets better results. If you want to understand how Mark Stone contributes to Ottawa out-shooting the opposition while he's on the ice, it's because of little plays like that.
That same shift, Stone retrieves the puck from a scramble along the boards by demonstrating great anticipation. He sizes up the situation below and jumps on the loose puck:
The key to this play is Stone's immediate recognition that both Colorado players are trying to play the body on MacArthur, leaving the puck ripe for the picking. Once in possession, Stone shows off his superior vision by finding a lurking Kyle Turris just above the goal line. Watch how after he collects the puck, he pivots to give himself a full view of the rink and fires off a pass from his strong side:
Which leads to this:
(It's hard to see the whole thing in motion because TSN chose to cut away from the wide angle shot to zoom in on Stone for some reason, so you'll have to trust me on this one).
In short, two textbook examples of why Mark Stone is so proficient in the NHL today. If you want the whole concept wrapped up nicely in video format, try the below from MacArthur's game-winning goal in the same game:
First of all: woooooooo. What skill. Secondly, Stone does many things right on this play but the two that stood out to me are the way he strips Iginla of the puck in stride, and the move he makes at the blue line to get around the Colorado defender. In the first instance Ray Ferraro, colour commentator for this game who chimes in during the replay, is 100% correct in saying that many players would have played for the bone crunching hit. That wouldn't have been a bad play here, but Stone makes an even better play: he strips the puck cleanly and he's off to the races. For all of the compliments paid to his size, his hands and vision are what make Stone special. That sequence was a great example of that. In the second instance, his move at the blue line is just sublime. It would have been awfully easy, and safer in some ways, to chip and chase to the corner. I'd wager most players with only 28 games NHL experience would have made that choice. Stone, instead, correctly assesses the Colorado defender is off-balance and attacks him with speed. Once he's around the defense, Stone again has the vision and patience to find MacArthur cruising through the slot for the game winner. Sensational.
It's still early, and the skeptic in me wants to scream out "small sample size alert!", but you can go ahead and call me the captain of the Mark Stone bandwagon. And when I remember that it wasn't always obvious it would turn out this way, that just makes me appreciate him all the more.