If the Idaho Steelheads were a basketball team, center Justin Dowling would be the hockey teams version of Steve Nash.
The Los Angeles Lakers guard is a two-time NBA MVP and eight-time All-Star known for his great court vision, playmaking skills and ability to make his teammates better by dishing out assists at a prodigious rate.
Those attributes are exactly what Dowling brings to the Steelheads.
Hes got great vision and makes passes that most guys cant, coach Brad Ralph said. To have a center especially at this level, to have those abilities is hard to find.
And Dowling, 22, has been making the most of those abilities in his first season as a Steelhead. He came into Fridays 7-2 win against the Bakersfield Condors with 43 points (12 goals and 31 assists).
Dowling ranks second in the ECHL in total points and assists. And with Colorado forward Chad Costello currently in the AHL, Dowling tops both of those lists among active ECHL players.
Its easy to see why Dowling was named a starter for the ECHL All-Star Game this week.
Its a privilege, but I wouldnt have gotten anywhere without my teammates, he said. Its all from what theyve done as well.
Linemate Tristan King has been the recipient of several of Dowlings passes, and said Dowlings all-star nod is much-deserved.
Hes had a great season so far. Hes been one of our top scorers right from the beginning, King said.
King is known for being a skilled player with a top-notch shot, so hes a good fit to play with Dowling.
He always tries to find me, King said. And I like to shoot the puck, so we work really well together.
Their coach wouldnt mind if Dowling looked to score more often.
For a guy like Justin, I just think to be a threat to pass youve also got to be a threat to shoot, Ralph said. It will open up the ice for him and his teammates.
Dowling agrees, its just that sometimes instinct trumps teaching.
Im a pass-first guy, he said. Thats how I am and how Ive always been. I wish I shot more and thought shot more, but the reality is, Im a passer first and I like to dish the puck. When I have shooters on my line like (Austin) Fyten and King, it works out really well.
Still, its not like Dowling is incapable of scoring. He came into Fridays game on a three-game goal streak.
Lately, Ive been shooting the puck more, he said. Ive been trying to get a better release on my shot, which has been working out.
Said Ralph: I think hes doing a better job of that lately, and it will only help him down the road.
They play on the same line now, but King, Dowling and Fyten played against each other when they were juniors in the Western Hockey League.
We all hated each other, King said.
That obviously has changed now that theyre teammates, not that they are overly respectful of their friendship.
Dowling is known as a soft-spoken, quiet leader, but he showed Friday morning that hes not above a little hijinks.
He tried to put a fake rat in my gear, King said. But I already knew he was trying to do it. Hes smooth on the ice, but off the ice, when it comes to pranks, hes got to get a little better.
Steelheads top Condors
It was the Austin Smith show Friday night at CenturyLink Arena. Smith scored two spinning, highlight-reel goals in a 7-2 win over the Bakersfield Condors. Smith added two assists and five other Steelheads scored as Idaho (21-7-5) buried Bakersfield with four straight goals to close out the game. Rookie goalie Josh Robinson stopped 35-of-37 shots to improve to 13-1-2. Idaho hosts Bakersfield again Saturday night. It will be the fourth time in five games that Idaho has played the Condors.