There was a time when Steven Stamkos‘ one-timer on the power play gave opponents’ nightmares. Quick pass, quicker shot and the Tampa Bay Lightning phenom cruised to a 51 goals in 2009-10 as a 20-year-old.
Naturally, defenses figured out how to stop the No. 1 pick from the 2008 draft. But Stamkos is on the way to another 50-goal season because he has done what Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin hasn’t: reinvent his game and discover new ways to fill up the net.
“When you’ve played in the league for a while, people pick up on things, they pick up on where you score from, what you like to do when you’re in the offensive zone, so you have to make adjustments and be able to adapt to your surroundings,” Stamkos said. “It was something that I wanted to adjust. As you mature throughout your career, you’ll always keep finding new ways to get opportunities.”
For Stamkos, it has been scoring a plethora of even-strength goals as the power play is no longer the primary source of his production. Entering Thursday night’s game in Washington, 38 of his 48 goals this season have come five-on-five.
As the Lightning try to steal a playoff spot despite floundering for parts of the season, one of Stamkos‘ partners in crime is not the least bit surprised by the 22-year-old’s torrid scoring pace, nor his ability to adapt.
“I feel in this league you have to reinvent yourself all the time,” Lightning right wing Martin St. Louis said. “If you score a lot of goals from one spot, you take it away. You always have to find a way to reinvent yourself. He’s done that.”
That’s one of the top criticisms of Ovechkin, as players around the NHL have noted his patented curl-and-drag move and repeatedly snuffed it out. Ovechkin, 26, has scored at least 50 goals four times but dropped to 32 last season and is on pace for the same number this time around.
Meanwhile, Stamkos could earn Hart Trophy consideration if the Lightning make the playoffs, as it’s hard to argue any other player perhaps outside of Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin has been more valuable to his team’s success.
Coach Guy Boucher praised his young star for his willingness to buy in to changing up his game.
“He’s worked hard at, is very receptive,” Boucher said. “He’s taken this quest of becoming a complete player and a winner very, very seriously, and that’s why he’s benefiting from scoring from all angles, all kinds of situations: whether it’s a breakaway, two-on-one, wraparound, screen, tip, jam. He does it all.”
Teammates such as St. Louis don’t marvel at it anymore. “It’s nothing new for us,” the former MVP quipped. But players such as Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner watch Stamkos score game-winners (he has an NHL-best 10) and recall that Ovechkin has shown flashes of that.
“That’s what those players do,” Alzner said. “It’s like when you’re playing video games. They’re the ‘game breakers’ on the video game. That’s why they get that tag is because they can go out there and when you’re against the wall they do it.”
Stamkos has done all this with St. Louis and Teddy Purcell. Tampa Bay captain Vinny Lecavalier (broken hand) remains out and after the Lightning traded forwards Dominic Moore and Steve Downie and defenseman Pavel Kubina. That’s a lot of pressure for a guy who just signed a five-year, $37.5 million contract last offseason and is earning every dollar by carrying his team.
“I put that pressure on myself regardless of who is in the lineup. Obviously, it’s magnified now with the trades that we made and with Vinny out … But for right now for Teddy, Marty and I, we realize that we need to score goals to help our team win, and we like that pressure.”