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How Stamkos Leads the Lightning Going Forward

September 7, 2018, 6:38 PM ET [4 Comments]
Sam Hitchcock
Tampa Bay Lightning Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Sanguine and self-assured, Steven Stamkos emerged as an NHL star in 2009-10, his second year, when he whacked in 51 goals. It is easy to romanticize the early version of the former No. 1 overall pick, when he scored goals prolifically and made it look effortless. Stamkos posted 36 goals in 2015-16, but it is reasonable to posit that his scoring prime is reaching its conclusion soon. It arguably happened in 2017-18. Last season, 15 of Stamkos’s 27 goals came on the power play. That is one less goal than Alex Killorn obtained at even strength. Stamkos’s shooting percentage was the lowest it has been since his rookie season.

Under contract until the Summer Olympics in Paris, Stamkos seems ready to refashion himself in a new phase of his career. His 59 assists last season were a career best by 13. For Stamkos, there are different avenues to maintaining influence. Personally, I see two routes: Whip 275 shots on net and 35 will go in if his shooting percentage hovers in the 12-percent range again. That is a high volume, clearly, but Stamkos passed up a lot of looks last season in the hopes of making a better pass. If the dip in his shooting percentage is a trend, then he needs to become more selfish and put more rubber on net.

The other option is for Stamkos to try to mold himself into an Anze Kopitar type. That’s easier said than done—Kopitar is a fantastic player—but Stamkos is a putative superstar and is certainly paid like one. Transitioning from star sharpshooter to two-way wrecking ball should not be dismissed as a goal to strive for. Career mutation has a long and rich history in the NHL.

Kopitar made his reputation as a center who dominates in all three zones. Last year was only the third season where he notched over 30 goals. He can make a seismic impact without being a dominant scorer. This might be the more likely path for the captain of the Lightning to stay relevant to opponents’ defensive schemes.

To emulate Kopitar, Stamkos would need to become a fiend in one-on-one puck battles and demonstrate a dominant presence at stamping out enemies’ offensive fusillades. Last season, Stamkos struggled to engineer offense with his puck-handling, and his frequent turnovers made it evident how knotty the neutral zone can get when trying to navigate it and gain offensive entry.

Stewarding the puck should be the main area of focus for Stamkos this year. If he wants to transition from sniper to playmaker, which the uptick in his assists may suggest, then he needs to improve his efficacy in transporting the puck from A to B, and be able to achieve that over the distance of 100 feet.

Another player whose role Stamkos could ape is Nicklas Backstrom. For years, Backstrom has been quietly efficient at voyaging through thickets of defenders and setting up Alexander Ovechkin. While Evgeny Kuznetsov has now taken over that role, Kuznetsov offers similar facilitating expertise. Stamkos has a similarly redoubtable shooter on the wing in Nikita Kucherov, so it is incumbent that he find a way to consistently feed him, which will in turn open up options for himself. But, Stamkos and Kucherov were possibly tethered together in a way that made Stamkos too reliant on his Hart Trophy-worthy linemate. Off the top of my head, I couldn’t remember what a line looked like without Stamkos and Kucherov together. The data was revealing.

When Stamkos was away from Kucherov at 5v5 last year, Stamkos saw his Corsi fall from 53.88 to 49.65. Yet when Kucherov was away from Stamkos, his Corsi only fell by one percentage point. After all, the Stamkos-Kucherov-Vladislav Namestikov line led the Lightning in 5v5 time on ice together by nearly 230 minutes. Other linemates with Stamkos and Kucherov featured J.T. Miller and Chris Kunitz. For the most part, coach Jon Cooper was loathe to split Stamkos and Kucherov up.

But in the few instances when they did get separated, the line that Stamkos played on the most was with Yanni Gourde, and Tyler Johnson. They had a -11 Corsi plus-minus and allowed three goals while posting two. The next example of a line Stamkos played on without Kucherov was with Namestikov and Johnson as his linemates, and they fared much better with a +19 Corsi plus-minus and +2 goal differential. That latter line only saw 48 minutes, but still reveals that Stamkos did not always wither without Kucherov last year. A more self-reliant Stamkos will allow him to manufacture scoring chances with or without Kucherov.

One thing is evident: The Lightning need Stamkos to be a valuable contributor if they are going to win the Cup this decade. Stamkos can push back against his dwindling goal numbers by redefining himself. Perhaps the best example of a playmaker sustaining relevance throughout his 30s is Joe Thornton. It is easy to forget now that Thornton could score over 30 goals when he was in his 20s, but with the San Jose Sharks he has embraced the role of master puppeteer. He has the mobility and wisdom to guide the puck out of danger and into the attacking zone, and can suck defenses into bad decisions before hitting the open man. From the age of 29 on, Thornton has accrued 49 or more assists seven times. Jumbo Joe has retained his speed and his puck-handling as his scoring ability evaporated, and that has enabled him to identify passing lanes that no one closed while extending his dominance for much of this decade.

Stamkos has 82 games to figure out how to improve his puck-handling and sometimes operate independently of Kucherov. If Stamkos succeeds, the Lightning will have the option of spreading out the talent with Stamkos, Kucherov, and Brayden Point on three different lines, much like the Penguins do with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel. Or Tampa Bay can let Stamkos and Kucherov buddy up and the duo can savage their opponents in tandem. Having lineup versatility with Stamkos will make the Lightning a more difficult matchup.

But if Stamkos fails, it is reasonable to conclude that the attrition from his significant injuries has affected his speed and edge-work in a way that has severed his puck-transporting abilities. Without a dominant No. 1 center, it is nearly impossible to survive the gauntlet of the Eastern Conference. It could be argued that how, and whether, Stamkos can reinvent himself are the most salient questions facing the Lightning this season.
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