Evolution complete: Mark Stone arrived in Vegas at the perfect time
Jeff Bottari / Getty Images

Mark Stone's having a moment right now.

Since being traded to the Vegas Golden Knights on Feb. 25, Stone's already bagged four goals and four assists while his new team has won nine of 10 games heading into Thursday's home date with the Jets. Quite simply, the fit has been impeccable.

It's crazy to think that just last month, Stone debated re-signing with the Ottawa Senators, who drafted him in the sixth round in 2010. However, the queasy state of the Senators ultimately saw the right winger shipped to Vegas, where he quickly signed an extension through 2026-27 at a team-high annual cap hit of $9.5 million.

Ethan Miller / Getty Images

Really, Stone's never had it so good.

After carrying the weight of being the best player on the NHL's worst team, the low-profile 26-year-old is now drawing second-tier matchups on a line with smart veterans Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty. Individually, he's firmly in the Selke Trophy conversation for the first time in his career. And at the team level, he's playing for last season's Stanley Cup finalist, which should contend again in the Western playoff bracket.

So, let’s unpack how Stone arrived at this juncture of his career, and what makes him so effective on the ice.

The early days

Rob and Jackie Stone designated a boatload of time, energy, and money to hockey in the 1990s, which assured that Mark and older brother Michael, currently a Calgary Flames defenseman, could immerse themselves in the sport.

Over time, mom and dad developed a habit of stopping by one particular vendor at the arena to pick up a keepsake for whichever child had been competing that day. "If our games were being videotaped, we weren’t leaving the rink without one," Mark told theScore in a recent phone interview.

The collection of souvenirs morphed into pieces of research for young Mark, who became obsessed with reviewing not only his own shifts but also the performances of his brother’s team, particularly during the famous Brick tournament in Edmonton.

"We bought all the tapes of Michael's games," Rob said of the annual event showcasing the country's top 10-year-olds. "The only person who’s ever watched them is Mark."

Jeff Bottari / Getty Images

There were other early signs of potential stardom, namely Mark's elite hockey sense that began bubbling to the surface during his formative days in Winnipeg-area arenas.

Rob remembers other parents demanding that young Mark - then skating against kids a year older - strap on the goalie pads for a few two-minute shifts per game in an effort to level the playing field. Fair enough, the Stones thought. Unfortunately for the complainants, the lopsidedness continued.

"As the goalie, he would fire passes up the ice so his teammates could get breakaways," Rob recalled, seemingly still in disbelief 20 years later. "That’s how much of a strategist he was, even as a 5-year-old."

Along with his advanced mind, Mark developed what Michael calls an "ultracompetitive" streak, which the brothers shared. "We hated losing. To one another, and in anything," Michael said, referring to baseball, lacrosse, and other sporting adventures.

At least once, Mark broke a mini stick over the back of Michael's leg. And no family member was immune to his fits of rage.

"I remember him getting mad at my grandma because they lost the baseball game and she was just trying to say, 'Hey, everything’s alright,'" Michael laughed. "And he was so mad. He would have been, like, seven? Five? Really young and totally took it out on our grandma."

As he aged, Mark matured and gained a greater appreciation for the sport, although he refused to settle for anything less than perfect when it came to his hockey stick - much to the annoyance of his parents.

"You have no idea how many nights he'd go, 'I need a new stick,'" Rob said. "We'd be like, 'Another new stick? Ah man, OK. Let’s go and look.' We would never go to just one store."

The progression

Wedged between Stone's minor-hockey triumphs and his 400-game NHL career was a period of doubt. The general concern: How will this lanky teen with inefficient skating get from Point A to Point B?

"He hadn't, as a young player, added up to the sum of his parts," Kelly McCrimmon, then the Brandon Wheat Kings' owner, general manager, and head coach, said of the 14-year-old Stone he selected 92nd overall in the 2007 Western Hockey League bantam draft.

"The skating really needed work, physical maturation, getting stronger. Those were the things that had to come together for him."

Icon Sportswire / Getty Images

In due time, Stone made McCrimmon, now assistant GM of the Golden Knights, look like a talent-evaluation genius. It's true that a growth spurt in the forward's mid-teens had taken his skating from awkward to poor, but after a strong second season that saw the Wheat Kings nearly win the 2010 Memorial Cup, Stone broke out, piling up 229 points in 137 games across his final two junior campaigns.

The turning point arrived in the summer of 2011, when the Senators assigned Stone some gut-check homework one year after drafting him: Change the mechanics of your stride, kid. Get your feet moving in harmony instead of against each other.

With the aid of Senators skating coach Marc Power, concerns began to fade. "We had to make sure he's learning how to use his edges and how to maximize his skating ability as much as he can, with the body that he has," said Paul MacLean, Ottawa's bench boss from 2011-14. "That was a priority for us, and it's something that he went and worked at and became good at."

"His skating, to me, was never going to be a big issue," added Cory Clouston, who took over for McCrimmon as Wheat Kings coach in Stone's last junior year. "I think he took it upon himself to say, 'If that’s my weakness, I’m going to turn it into a strength.' I think he's done a really good job at it."

Stone, who's now a coordinated 6-foot-4, 220-pound package on skates, graduated to the pro ranks in 2012-13. And the sixth-rounder from a few summers earlier - a complete long shot on paper - made noise almost immediately, contributing 38 points in 58 AHL games while managing to crack Ottawa's lineup four times.

"He was an impact player back then," said current Ducks forward Jakob Silfverberg, Stone’s teammate in Binghamton that year. "You could tell, anytime he had the puck on his stick it was under control. He never seemed to be rushed on the ice. He was always making the right play. And that’s something he's still doing today, but maybe with more confidence."

Therein lies the secret to Stone’s rise, and the reason he didn’t fall off the rails amid the reconstruction of his skating stride. His mind, as Clouston framed it, is very "proactive." The winger is flexible, versatile, and really cares about winning.

"For an offensive guy at that level, I don't know if I’ve ever had a guy who took that much pride in his defensive game," the coach said. "He wanted to be successful. He didn't want to be a one-dimensional player."

The finished product

It seemed like something was always going wrong during Stone's tenure in Ottawa.

Sure, he was a key part of two Cinderella runs - the Hamburglar streak of 2015 and the near trip to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final - but the Senators were never considered true contenders.

Yet Stone, to steal a phrase from former Ottawa coach Guy Boucher, was Mr. Consistency. In four full seasons, he posted point totals of 64, 61, 54, and 62. He starred on special teams, drew the stiffest competition, housed rookies, and kept his mouth shut as the franchise spiraled out of control. Brilliantly, Stone even recorded five points in the first game after the infamous Uber video leaked in November.

Then there are the copious defensive plays. Including this year, in which he's recorded 107 takeaways through 69 games, Stone has paced the NHL in the category in five of his six seasons.

"His hand-eye coordination is second to none, and I think the way he reads the game he almost knows what you're doing before you even think about doing it," Senators goalie Craig Anderson said.

Beyond those skills, Stone has become the league's takeaway king while using one of the weirdest - and most effective - sticks in the league, especially in his first two NHL seasons.

"We called it the Lizard Stick. It comes out of nowhere and then is gone," former Senators teammate Curtis Lazar said of Stone's lumber during those early years. Meanwhile, Stone admits his stick obsession, which carried forward from childhood, got "out of control" when he entered the NHL.

"Mine have always been different than most," he said. "(These days), it's got a little shorter blade, it’s a little bit longer, but it’s a lot more standard than it used to be."

Along with the takeaways and the projected career bests in goals, assists, and points this season, Stone's underlying defensive numbers are off the charts. Among the 420 skaters who've played at least 700 five-on-five minutes in 2018-19, he leads in two important categories: Corsi Relative percentage and Goals Above Replacement. There's a strong possibility Stone could become the first winger to win the Selke - an award usually reserved for elite two-way centers such as Patrice Bergeron and Anze Kopitar - since Jere Lehtinen in 2003.

"As much as I love scoring goals and being out there for a goal, it almost makes it worse when you’re out there for something against," Stone said. "It’s just something that has stuck with me throughout my career."

Ethan Miller / Getty Images

So far in Vegas, the Pacioretty-Stastny-Stone line has been dominant at even strength, controlling 60 percent of shot attempts, 61 percent of scoring chances, 62 percent of shots, and 67 percent of goals. Stone's also found a spot on the first-unit power play, lining up on the right flank.

"Whatever that subliminal impact is across the entire team, I think Mark’s had a really positive impact to our team, and specifically to the two players he's playing with," McCrimmon said.

The adjustments have been seamless because both team and player needed each other. The Golden Knights had been yearning for secondary scoring, while Stone's time in Ottawa, like that of other franchise stars over the past couple seasons, had run its course.

Signing the long-term extension was a no-brainer as well. Stone, the former draft long shot, could finally cash in on his dedication and progression, while McCrimmon and Vegas could lock up an elite three-zone winger who quietly ranks eighth in points among those selected in the 2010 draft, which featured Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin at the top.

"The last year and a half have been tough on me, losing so many hockey games," Stone said. "Being in Vegas right now, I’m just so excited with how well the team is playing and how many wins we're getting. It looks like we’re going to have an opportunity to try and win a Stanley Cup.”

John Matisz is theScore's National Hockey Writer. You can find him on Twitter @matiszjohn.

Comments
Evolution complete: Mark Stone arrived in Vegas at the perfect time
  Got something to say? Leave a comment below!
Daily Newsletter
Get the latest trending sports news daily in your inbox