Stamkos starting to shine for Tampa Bay

Originally published in Eishockey News in 2009

By Lucas Aykroyd

If you compare the first NHL season of Steven Stamkos to the rookie campaigns of other recent top draft picks like Alexander Ovechkin (2004) or Sidney Crosby (2005), it might seem like a failure. But as the 2008-09 regular season heads toward its conclusion, the 19-year-old Tampa Bay Lightning centre has clearly made big improvements.

“My confidence level is the highest it’s been in weeks,” said Stamkos after scoring Tampa’s lone goal in a 2-1 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on February 27. “Goals are starting to go in, and points are starting to come. I’m creating chances. Hopefully I can continue with that.”

The swift-skating native of Markham, Ontario notched his first NHL hat trick in a 5-3 loss to Chicago on February 17. It was a personal high for Stamkos in a season that’s had more downs than ups.

After being chosen first overall in 2008, Stamkos was featured in the Lightning’s pre-season “Seen Stamkos?” advertising campaign. Yet he struggled to get playing time early on.

Barry Melrose, whom the Lightning fired as their head coach in November, told reporters that Stamkos simply wasn’t ready to play in the NHL. That wasn’t easy to hear for Stamkos, who racked up 105 points in his last season of junior hockey with the OHL’s Sarnia Sting and has excelled at every level.

But it’s worth remembering that first overall picks like Joe Thornton and Owen Nolan also started off slowly in their first years. Thornton had a paltry three goals and four assists in 55 games for Boston in 1997-98, and Nolan was limited to three goals and 10 assists in 59 games for Quebec in 1990-91.

While Stamkos won’t win the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year, he’s proving he belongs in the NHL even as a teenager. And at least he’ll top the 30-point plateau.

“There’s a reason why Steven was taken #1 overall,” said Mark Recchi, one of the many well-known veteran names the Lightning signed in the off-season. “With his attitude and composure as a kid, he’s going to be fine. We just tell him to keep buying into what the coaches tell him.”

“Rick Tocchet and his staff have been giving me positive feedback,” said Stamkos. “They’ve been impressed with the way I’ve played lately, and they’ve rewarded me with the opportunity to play with guys like Mark Recchi and Martin St. Louis for the first time this year. I’ve also gotten to play the point on the second power play unit. I’m playing a lot and feeling great.”

Tampa’s roster next season will look quite different since the spending spree that co-owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie went on prior to 2008-09 simply didn’t work out. The Lightning will miss the playoffs for the second straight year, a far cry from their 2004 Stanley Cup victory.

Upgrading the defence will be a major priority. But although the forward corps will also get shaken up, GM Brian Lawton recently promised that captain Vincent Lecavalier isn’t going anywhere. Stamkos, one of the few other untouchables on the roster, was glad to hear that.

“It’s great news for us,” said Stamkos. “He’s our captain, he’s our leader. Nobody wanted to see him go. He’s the face of this franchise and somebody you want to build around.”

For Stamkos, his team’s goal for the rest of the season is simple.

“We just want to keep playing hard,” said Stamkos. “We’ve got to play for one another and respect. It’s tough when you lose, but we’ll hopefully find a way to beat some good teams down the stretch.” Digg it Furl iFeedReaders Netscape RawSugar reddit StumbleUpon Yahoo MyWeb YardBarker

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