He is but 19 years old and just 10 games have been played this season but I’ve seen enough to call it:
The Tampa Bay Lightning is Steven Stamkos’ team.
Beyond the near goal-a-game pace he’s set, beyond the team-leading 14 points and beyond an NHL-best five power play tallies, Stamkos has been glaringly dominant in the early stages of his sophomore campaign and is looking every bit the superstar.
He is an elite talent, a game-changer and a governing force that will drive the Lightning’s success.
Not some day.
Not when he reaches his potential.
As Steven Stamkos goes, so goes the Tampa Bay Lightning. Hints of that eventual truth became abundantly clear as reality to these eyes last night as the kid turned in an all-around stellar performance against the visiting Ottawa Senators. In upwards of 20 minutes of ice time, Stamkos potted a pair of power play goals, added an assist, was a plus-2, recorded six shots on goal and won 11 of 16 faceoffs.
There’s a swagger about his game this season that was evident as early as training camp – but perhaps we should have taken notice even earlier.
After a laissez-faire approach from then-coach Barry Melrose in last season’s training camp that – as a Lightning veteran told me last season – left Stamkos and other Tampa Bay youngsters thinking to themselves, “That’s it? This is the NHL?”
, early season struggles ensued. Melrose exited, of course, after 16 games and with some much-needed discipline and an educational approach to the game from new head coach Rick Tocchet and staff, Stamkos took flight and we watched as his game was elevated to a new level in the second half of the year, finishing with 23 goals and 46 points for the type of solid rookie season that looked all but impossible early on.
Developing chemistry with Martin St. Louis expedited Stamkos’ maturation process and an impressive, 7-goal, 11-point showing at the 2009 World Championships hinted that his arrival as a bona fide superstar might come sooner than many expected.
With a year of NHL experience under his belt and fresh off an off-season conditioning program with former teammate Gary Roberts, Stamkos is showing that his time to shine is now.
The National Hockey League, as a whole, has shown a major shift in its dependence on young stars in prominent roles in recent years and it has become clear that the Tampa Bay Lightning are a part of that trend. With Stamkos anchoring the forward ranks and 18-year-old Victor Hedman patrolling the Lightning blue line, Tampa Bay has two key cogs in place for years to come on which they are already relying heavily for present success. (Hedman leads all Lightning defenseman in average time on ice this season and Stamkos played more than any other forward in last night’s game.)
Perhaps what is most special about Stamkos – especially at this early stage of his career – is the invaluable ability to make those around him better. Ryan Malone is off to his best start as a pro riding Stamkos’ shotgun, St. Louis hasn’t missed a beat in the time spent on his line, a power play unit that includes Vincent Lecavalier has been outstanding at times and Stamkos was even instrumental in finally getting a snakebitten Alex Tanguay on the board for his first goal of the season last night.
Tocchet himself, while understandably cautious in describing his young star, sees exactly this type of exceptional quality in Stamkos as well.
“He’s emerging as a leader,”
he said. “I’m not going to put a lot of pressure on him but he’s definitely confident, I’ll tell you that. He’s got another level in him.”
It’s that other level – already – that makes Stamkos the integral puzzle piece that will take the Lightning from dangerous to respectable, from respectable to contending and from contending to defending.
He’s that kind of talent.
He’s that kind of driving force.
And Steven Stamkos is
the Tampa Bay Lightning.
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