Mark Stone is to takeaways as Alexander Ovechkin is to goals. As Joe Thornton is to assists. As Connor McDavid is to speed.
It’s become somewhat of an art form for the Senators forward, now nearly three full seasons into his NHL career. Stone does it like absolutely no one else.
“It’s literally every game,” said teammate Zack Smith after practice Monday morning. “He’ll hit the guy next to him and you’ll be like ‘did he just steal the puck there?’”
“He’s gotten so good at, not just catching guys by surprise, because they know he’s coming, but just using his stick at the right time and being smart with the timing of it,” said Kyle Turris.
The statistical distance between Stone and the rest of the field is always mind boggling.
Last season, Stone led the league in steals with 128, 51 more than Jeff Skinner in second place. This year, he’s only leading by 16 heading into the final third of the campaign, but since 2014, the closest player to Stone’s 298 is John Tavares at 202.
That’s a gap of 96.
In its pure essence, the takeaway is the statistic that best represents the defensive aspect of hockey. When you don’t have the puck, find a way to get it back from your opponent.
It’s something the voters for the Frank J. Selke Trophy should keep in mind at the conclusion of the 2016-17 regular season. Whether he’s in the one or five spot, Stone deserves to be on the ballot.
By definition, the Selke Trophy is given to the NHL forward who demonstrates the most skill in the defensive component of the game. The league’s explanation of the award uses the word “forward,” but really, they should replace it with a more specific description.
In the last 25 years, only one player has succeeded in winning the Selke Trophy while not playing centre. Dallas Stars great Jere Lehtinen won the award three times (1998, 1999 and 2003) at the right wing position.
Since Lehtinen, the trophy has been dominated by the men in the middle. Pavel Datsyuk won it three consecutive times from 2008-2010, Patrice Bergeron is also a three-time winner and the latest to take home the hardware was Anze Kopitar last June.
And it’s not just the winners. The overall voting is widely aimed at players with faceoff percentages. In 2016, only one of the top 14 candidates wasn’t a centre.
Unfortunately, Stone is a winger. But fortunately, he’s got a lot more than “number of takeaways” on his resume.
“His defensive game is as good as his offensive game and he’s probably the easiest guy I’ve ever played with,” said Smith when asked to make a case for his on-again, off-again linemate. “In terms of producing, you go to the net and he’s going to find you there. He’s going to strip a Dman, the other team’s not going to be ready and he’ll get you the puck. For me, the biggest thing with him is that he’s very easy to play with.”
That’s exactly it. Stone makes everyone he plays with better and his teammates definitely notice.
While the 24-year-old’s offensive abilities are driven by his skill and creativity, the defensive side of his game is an intriguing mix of elite hockey IQ and an unrivalled compete level.
Stone’s knack for anticipating how a play is going to unfold is one of the reasons he’s been able to grow at such a rapid pace in the NHL. While he developed the rest of his skills - his skating needed to get better for a long time and it’s now well above average - he was always able to rely on his smarts to get by.
It was said that goaltending legend Dominik Hasek played hockey as if he was playing chess, and was always two steps ahead of his opponent.
Stone plays chess, too. It’s the one from Star Trek with, like, six different levels and he’s already won by the time you sit down to play.
Then there’s that incredible determination. It’s most visually noticeable in his face after a goal, but during a game you’ll never see Stone give up on a play no matter how out of reach it looks. It’s extremely rare to see that in such a high-end talent.
This next part is for the nerds.
On a team that still gives up the 26th most shot attempts in the league, Stone is an absolute gem when it comes to the defensive zone. His Corsi against per 60 is tops on the team.
And that factors quite well into his all around game. He’s creating just as much in the offensive zone as he is taking away in the defensive zone.
When looking across the league, his possession numbers stack up against the best and blow some elite players out of the water. Using team relative CF%, Stone’s 10.1 rating is second in the entire NHL, only behind linemate Derick Brassard. Bergeron (8.3), Tavares (7.2), McDavid (5.3) and Kopitar (2.7) all have unbelievable on-ice numbers, but statistically, they are not as important to their team as Stone is.
Alright non-nerds, welcome back.
If there ever was a play that perfectly depicted Stone’s overall impact on both sides of the puck it would be the tally that gave him the team lead in goals against the New York Islanders on Saturday afternoon.
Four minutes into the first frame, the Islanders are looking to break out of their own end. Ottawa native Calvin DeHaan attempts to chop the puck off the glass and out, but Stone has already anticipated such a decision. He jumps, grabs the clearing attempt out of mid air, forces his way through two Islanders and feeds Erik Karlsson in the slot for a one-timer that really should’ve went top shelf.
But it didn’t. So Stone chased the puck down behind the net, banked it off goaltender Thomas Greiss from the trapezoid and past the goal line for the 1-0 lead. Hockey IQ, creativity, talent and determination all wrapped up into seven incredible seconds.
The look on his face says it all.
“Wow, even I’m impressed.”