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Know Your Role: Sturm on Navigating Crossroads That Most Young Players Face



Credit: Dean Tait/Hockey Shots

Nico Sturm has come a long way since his days of dominance with Clarkson University.

The once-potent scorer has adjusted his game to that of a defensively-minded center and he has a Stanley Cup ring with the Colorado Avalanche and a rock-solid role with the San Jose Sharks to show for it.

He has become an example for other young players on the Sharks as to how to make that adjustment.

“When you first come into the league, you don’t know where you fit in, and at first, you’re anxious when you don’t contribute on the scoresheet every night because you think that’s all that matters,” Sturm told San Jose Hockey Now in April. “Later, after my trade to Colorado and winning a Stanley Cup there, was when I came to the acceptance that maybe there are certain things that I want to get better at, it doesn’t mean that I’m not trying to play net-front on the power play, score more goals, or have more offensive upside, but I need to play to my strengths.”

In 2018-19, Sturm scored 14 goals and 45 points in 39 games as Clarkson captain and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, awarded to the top player in collegiate hockey.

But since signing with the Minnesota Wild that season, he has yet to come close to his point total from his senior year, though the NHL season is almost twice as long.

And Sturm has learned to be okay with that.

“If you ask the other coaches, scouts, management about [me], I want them to come up with two or three things,” Sturm said of his strengths. “I can skate, on the forecheck, I’m a penalty killer.”

Sturm was still trying to figure that out while he was in Minnesota.

“When you first come into the league, nobody has a picture of you yet because you haven’t played enough games,” he said. “You haven’t found a role and you’re bouncing up and down the lineup, and it’s not only hard for coaches, managers, and scouts to form a picture of you, but it’s also hard for you because you can’t ever play to your strengths when you don’t know what your role is or where you fit in the line-up.”

Sturm spent most of his first full professional season in the AHL with the Iowa Wild, where he had a productive offensive season, scoring 12 goals and 32 points in 55 games in 2019-20.

The following two years in Minnesota though, he had a combined 20 goals and 34 points in 105 games and found himself going in and out of the line-up at times.

It was not until the Colorado Avalanche traded for him at the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline that Sturm fully figured out his role.

“They were looking for something very specific and they told me, ‘This is what we want to do,’” Sturm said. “They were looking for a very specific player.”

“You need a little bit of feedback,” he added, before joking. “And also, you don’t have to be a genius. Like when I got there, I came into the locker room and I looked at the line-up sheet…I wasn’t going in there, maybe I’m on the second line? Maybe after [Nathan MacKinnon]?”

He also wasn’t going to play over 2C Nazem Kadri or 3C J.T. Compher.

In 21 regular season games and 13 playoff appearances with the Avs, Sturm didn’t actually even score a goal, though the team came through (including for the bettors here on Oddschecker). But he’d take one Stanley Cup above that zero.

This is what Sturm realized: “[If] I play on the second line [in Minnesota] and I make $5 million, I’m not getting traded.

“They were looking for a very specific type of player: A bottom-six guy who can win face-offs, play on the penalty kill, can play more minutes, less minutes, and just does his job without complaining. If I’m in a completely different situation, they’re not looking for me, so I’m thankful for that.

“It made me realize that this will be my NHL career, and now, I’m just trying to play to my strengths.”

Being less proud and embracing the road less taken has earned Sturm a three-year, $6 million contract with the San Jose Sharks in the summer of 2022. And while the Sharks have struggled, Sturm has stayed true to himself and solidified himself as one of the better fourth-line centers in the NHL.

“You got to put your pride aside a little bit,” he said. “Realize that sometimes there’s a prospect that comes in, hasn’t played a single NHL game, but he’ll get power play time over you, and you might be mad about that. You might not understand that.

“Why is this guy getting to play 20 minutes a night and I didn’t get to play 10? But again, are you able to put that pride aside and make some sacrifices and fill another role in order to have an NHL career? You can make that choice.”

Not everybody can be a first-line center in the NHL — but not everybody can be a playoff-caliber fourth-line center either.

“I’m proud of my career path that I’ve taken and I don’t think there’s any shame in being that guy,” he said, then laughed. “I used to try to model my game after like Crosby, then after a while I realized, you know, that’s probably not gonna happen. So then I tried to look at other people.”

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