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Penguins sign controversial Downie to bring an edge to squad

| Wednesday, July 2, 2014, 1:42 p.m.

Rick Tocchet was added as a Penguins assistant coach partially because of his ability to discipline.

Exhibit A just walked back into Tocchet's life.

Forward Steve Downie, known for a career of suspensions and controversial moments, was signed by the Penguins to a one-year, $1 million contract Wednesday.

Downie isn't just a tough guy. He scored 22 goals for Tampa Bay during the 2009-10 season, when Tocchet was his head coach.

“I'll say this,” Tocchet said. “He was never a problem for me.”

Listening to Tocchet also isn't a problem for general manager Jim Rutherford, who told the Tribune-Review that Tocchet's influence played a significant role in Downie's signing.

Downie has been suspended for attacking a teammate in practice while in the Ontario Hockey League, intentionally slashing a linesman during an American Hockey League game and hitting from behind during an NHL preseason game.

“We know about his history,” Rutherford said. “When you have someone like Rick that knows him so well, who has worked with him, you're comfortable with bringing him in.”

Tocchet explained that some of Downie's life experiences have been responsible for his behavioral issues. Downie has suffered from partial deafness most of his life.

“You're right in some aspects if you're saying he's had some bad moments,” Tocchet said. “But there are also some fallacies and other things that aren't true. You've got to remember that Steve was basically deaf. He had an operation, and he can hear better now. His balance is better now. And now his off-ice habits and discipline are better. People have no idea what kind of a handicap a hearing problem is.”

Tocchet made it clear Downie will have only a positive impact on the Penguins.

“He was so good for me,” Tocchet said. “You have to stay on top of him in some ways. But who is perfect? Who doesn't have flaws?”

Downie's role isn't completely clear.

“He's in the top nine,” Rutherford said.

Downie could have a more prominent role than expected.

He enjoyed success with the Lightning while playing on a line with Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis.

The Penguins won't rule out playing him with center Sidney Crosby. Rutherford and Tocchet said they believe Downie possesses enough skill to play with Crosby and left wing Chris Kunitz, and his presence would offer Crosby some protection. Downie has a history of sticking up for his team's stars. In March 2010 while playing against the Penguins, Downie attacked Crosby moments after Brooks Orpik leveled Stamkos with a hit.

“I won't speak for (coach) Mike Johnston,” Tocchet said. “But Steve can be a top-six guy.”

Rutherford didn't disagree.

“I know what he did with St. Louis and Stamkos,” said Rutherford, whose former team, Carolina, played in Tampa Bay's division during the 2009-10 season. “There are very few guys who are this physical, who play this much on the edge and who can play in a top-six role. He's one of those guys.”

The Penguins are hopeful being reunited with Tocchet brings out the best in Downie.

“I think he'll be great here,” Tocchet said. “He's a good person, a good hockey player. And the best thing is that he wanted to be a Pittsburgh Penguin.”

Note: Travis Green, a front-runner to become an assistant coach on the Penguins' staff, has turned down the job offer, remaining coach of Utica in the American Hockey League. Green told The Province in British Columbia that he wants to become a head coach but believed he needed more time in hockey's minor leagues and preferred to stay in the Vancouver Canucks' organization. “It's one thing to coach and feel that you have support, but I feel like there's a tremendous amount of support in the organization for everyone,” he told the newspaper. “I know how that builds winning teams.”

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jyohe@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.

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