DENVER -- Steve Downie is vibrating with excitement at the prospect of opening night here in Denver.
You’d think the rugged winger was a wide-eyed rookie with his grin and anticipation.
And given that injuries have derailed parts of his past two seasons, he said it’s an apt comparison.
“It’s been awhile since I got in a regular-season game,” Downie told ESPN.com on the eve of the Avalanche’s season opener against the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday.
“So it’s definitely going to be exciting, emotional. It almost feels like my rookie year again, so hopefully we can play hard,” he said.
Downie's career has been marked by twists and turns from his start with the Philadelphia Flyers, who selected him in the first round of the 2005 draft. After a controversial junior career, he developed a reputation as a loose cannon with the Flyers, at one point earning a 20-game suspension for a hit on Ottawa’s Dean McAmmond during a preseason game. But Downie matured and grew, settling into a groove while in Tampa, becoming fast friends and often linemates with Steven Stamkos. Downie shed the bad-boy image and established himself as a skilled but gritty winger who could play up and down the lineup.
He was a key part of the Lightning’s surprise run to the 2011 Eastern Conference finals, chipping in 14 points in 17 postseason games. He was traded to the Avs at the 2012 trade deadline; in Colorado that season, he collected 13 points in 20 games despite a nagging shoulder injury that ultimately required surgery. Earlier this year, in just his second game after the lockout, Downie suffered a season-ending knee injury that required surgery to repair a torn ACL.
“It’s been, what’s the right word? Awful? I mean, think about it. I came here, I had my shoulder done, and one game later I get my knee done. It’s been a struggle, but I’ve been looking forward to this. It’s going to be exciting,” Downie said.
Downie is ready to roll, and rookie head coach Patrick Roy has entrusted him with a spot on a line with Matt Duchene and Ryan O’Reilly. The Avs have the potential to be one of the most explosive offenses in the Western Conference.
“Right now he brings a lot to that line," Roy said. "He creates space for Dutchie and Ryan. He’s going to the net. He’s playing the hard way. On every line, we feel that we have a guy that plays the hard way. And Stevie is one of them on that line.”
Roy, the Hall of Fame netminder who will be coaching his first NHL game Wednesday night, praised Downie’s work at both ends of the ice.
“Finishes his check and playing really well defensively. He’s become a really important player on that line, there’s no doubt about it, and I think that Ryan and Matt seem to enjoy it a lot playing with him right now,” Roy said.
Duchene agreed, saying that getting Downie back in the lineup after his injury woes was like trading for a key player, even if he is a bit of a “goofball” in the dressing room.
“He’s a gritty player," Duchene said. "He keeps things simple, he’s easy to read. He’s kind of the mucker on the line, probably, but he can put the puck in the net and make great plays when he has the puck, as well."
In the Avs' locker room at their practice facility, Downie and defenseman Erik Johnson yell good-naturedly at each other across the room. Downie said there is a much different vibe in the room with Roy coming on as coach.
“It’s exciting. We’ve got a coach here with a lot of energy and he won’t accept not winning. It’s a new attitude in here and guys are excited. Guys want to do this. Guys are working hard. It’s a lot different than when I came here,” Downie said. “We’re growing together and that’s a good thing.”
“I just bring my energy. I’m not going to change anything from the last six years of my career. I’m an energy player and that’s what I focus my game on. I don’t really see me changing as a player,” Downie said.