By Patrick King, Sportsnet.ca
Steven Stamkos is getting used to the idea of the Florida sun overlooking his next home rink.
Stamkos, the consensus first overall pick for the National Hockey League draft this June, found out earlier this week what his future might hold when the Tampa Bay Lightning received the No. 1 pick in the draft.
As far as the 18-year-old is concerned, combining hockey with the tropical weather in Tampa Bay, Fla., is the best of both worlds.
“You can’t complain about Florida,” he said. “You’re doing what you love in playing hockey and when you’re not, you’ve got the great weather so you can’t complain.”
The stars appeared to be aligning when the Lightning were awarded the first overall pick, potentially giving Stamkos an opportunity to play for a team that underachieved and could rebound as early as next season.
And in playing for the Lightning, the stars would also be aligned on the ice when the product of Unionville, Ont., takes his place next to players such as Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis.
“Those two guys are superstars in the NHL,” Stamkos said.
Lecavalier would present Stamkos with an interesting perspective, should the Lightning select him first overall. Ten years ago, the struggling Lightning used the first overall pick by selecting Lecavalier, hoping he would turn the franchise around.
While the first overall pick in each draft year has a lot of pressure placed on them, Lecavalier received more than his fair share when some were calling him the best Québec-born prospect since Mario Lemieux.
Having already experienced the pressure surrounding being the first pick, the Sarnia Sting star is looking at Lecavalier as being a potential role model.
“He has gone through what I’m possibly going to go through,” Stamkos said. “Vinny Lecavalier would be a great person to look up to and try to follow in his footsteps.”
Like Lecavalier did 10 years ago, Stamkos wants to play in the NHL in his first season after being drafted. History would be on Stamkos’ side as just one of the previous 10 first overall picks did not play in the NHL in his first season of eligibility.
“My goal is to play in the NHL next year and I think I’m ready to do that,” he said. “Obviously I have a lot of hard work in the summer to get bigger and stronger because it’s a bigger jump at the next level and it’s definitely going to be tough.”
Stamkos certainly has the resume to warrant playing in the NHL next season. He helped turn around the Sarnia Sting franchise two seasons ago after being chosen first in the Ontario Hockey League’s Priority Selection.
At just 17, Stamkos was a key contributor on Canada’s world junior team that went on to win their fourth consecutive world junior gold medal. Unlike many 17-year-olds playing in the under-20 tournament in previous years, Stamkos had a big role on head coach Craig Hartsburg’s team. He finished tied for first in team scoring with six points in five games.
“Getting an opportunity to play in the world juniors was probably one of the best experiences of my life,” he said. “Being able to represent your country and winning a gold medal was great for me.”
His second season in the OHL only helped cement his status as the top prospect available this season. Stamkos finished fifth in league scoring with 105 points while also helping lead his team to its first playoff series victory in more than 10 years.
In his final game of the season, Stamkos scored twice to increase his goal total to 58, setting the team record by beating the former total of 57 set by Ivan Novoseltsev in the 1998-99 season.
“(The record) wasn’t on the radar at the beginning of the season but being able to do that was pretty special for me,” Stamkos said.
His 11 goals in nine playoff games was just further proof of his ability to perform under pressure.
“Good players want to elevate their game in the playoffs and I think I was able to do that,” Stamkos exclaimed. “If anything, it goes to show I’m a pretty competitive guy. I hate losing and I’ll do whatever it takes to win.”
Although his Sting were eliminated in a four-game sweep by a more talented Kitchener Rangers team in the second round, going first overall would be the icing on the cake in what has been a dream season.
“(Going first) would definitely top it all off,” he said. “It’s not the end all and be all going first overall … but being rated that high is just an honour and hopefully I can make my dream come true and be that first overall pick come June.”