For the life of him, Steven Stamkos couldn’t shoot the puck where he wanted it to go.
It was a moment rich in irony and humility.
The Tampa Bay Lightning forward says his skating and his shot are the cornerstones of his success, and yet when there was nothing to watch in the NHL world but its greatest sniper firing at close-range targets, Stamkos couldn’t perform.
Featured in the 2012 All-Star Skills Competition’s Accuracy Challenge, Stamkos’s job was to hit four bull’s-eyes placed in the corners of an empty net with in as few shots as possible. He failed, comically.
By shot number 12, he had resorted to one-timers and slap shots. And after 40 seconds and 17 shots of futility, Stamkos skated right up to the final target… and still missed.
It was a classic foot-in-mouth moment, and hands-down the least-accurate display of all-star accuracy.
“I’d like to try the accuracy. I think I could do well in that. There’s not too much involved in that,” the Lightning star, decked out in a grey plaid three-piece suit, said confidently prior to the 2012 All-Star Skills Competition in Ottawa.
But Stamkos had salvaged the moment by hamming it up and letting his personality flow almost as freely as his winged hockey hair.
One would assume — judging by his lamp-lighting knack and not just his golden party-in-the-back — that Stamkos emerged from the womb with the gift of an archer’s shot, that he was born to one-time cross-ice feeds and jam wristers under the crossbar. But that wasn’t the case.
“I never had a good shot as a kid. I was one of the smaller kids and was a good skater, but I could never really shoot,” the native of Markham, Ont., explains. “My dad took me to shooting school when I 12, 13 years old and started to develop that with a one-on-one instructor. I think my shot’s more accurate than hard. It’s something that I’ve worked extremely hard on over the years, and continue to work on.”
If Stamkos, the lead’s leading goal scorer by a mile and a guy with a legit shot at 60 this year, continues to work on his shot, is it too much to ask for the NHL to work on developing Stamkos as a face of the league?
While the league once pinned its marketing strategy on the Sidney Crosby-Alex Ovechkin rivalry, there is now room for expansion. The wonder that is Evgeni Malkin deserves all the attention he gets, but so many of the NHL’s storylines this year have focused on coaching changes and non-trades and the saga that is Crosby’s health.
Would the incredible wintertime feats of an Ontario wonder (Don Cherry approved!) be so overlooked if Stamkos didn’t play in region where Canadians migrate to in order to escape wintertime?
“For me personally, every time I come to a Canadian city, I feel that buzz and I remember what it was like growing up here in Canada and watching your idols play hockey,” Stamkos says.
Whether or not he or the league is ready to admit it, Stamkos is the idol now. He’ll be the first to 50 this season. And kids in chillier climes than Tampa Bay ought to be watching more than just the middle-of-the-show highlight packs doled out to a middling southeast franchise.
If the last three seasons were one giant goal-scoring race, Stamkos would be Usain Bolt — the gap between him and the pack is that airy. During that span, No. 91 has racked up 143 goals. Corey Perry trails with 110, and Alex Ovechkin has 108. (Granted, a couple of emperor Penguins have had their march halted by injury.)
In 65 games this season, Stamkos has already scored 47 goals, surpassing the 45 goals he registered in 82 matches last season. The centreman is in great position to eclipse his personal bests in goals (51) and points (95), which were both set in 2009-10. As of early February, when Stamkos notched a goal against the L.A. Kings, he has now scored at least one goal against all other 29 NHL teams. With his recent accelerated scoring pace, Stamkos has widened the margin between himself and the NHL’s second-most-productive sniper, Malkin (38 goals), to nine red lights. As of Monday morning, the two were knotted atop the Art Ross Trophy race with 80 points apiece, although a tie would go to the man with more goals.
Remarkably, Stamkos only ranks 12th in power-play goals and 14th in power-play points, meaning he’s getting it done the hard way; his gaudy numbers aren’t padded by man-advantage markers. He does, however, share the NHL lead in game-winners (with Phoenix’s Radim Vrbata and Detroit’s Johan Franzen) at 10. So he’s clutch, too.
Even more impressive is that Stamkos has posted a career-best plus-8 rating (even during his 95-point season, Stamkos was a minus-2 player) for a team with a minus-35 goal differential that would miss the playoffs if they started today.
Although Tampa Bay has won its last four games, the team ranks four points behind the Winnipeg Jets for the hotly contested eighth seed in the East. Stamkos admits that the Lightning’s 2011-12 campaign has been an inconsistent one.
“We’re starting to get things rolling, so hopefully we can stay the course. You look at the standings, and guys are still believing. We play a lot of the teams that are ahead of us, so the ball is in our court. We have to realize what’s at stake,” Stamkos says. “Hopefully the experience we had last year in that playoff stretch can help us. It’s gonna be a fight. Hopefully we can slide under the radar and play well.”
Stamkos knows how to play well. He played well enough in the Ontario Minor Hockey Association to be drafted first overall into the Ontario Hockey League, where he scored 100 goals in two seasons with the Sarnia Sting, which in turn was well enough to earn first-overall NHL Entry Draft honours in 2008. He waited only until his sophomore year in the bigs to score 51 goals and co-win the Maurice Richard Trophy (with Sidney Crosby), award to the NHL’s top goal-getter.
But like a Pulitzer-winning scribe who suffers from bouts of writer’s block, Stamkos has drawn blanks, too. Last season, he jumped out of the gates at a silly pace, scoring 19 goals in his first 19 games. Hockey writers began murmuring about 50 in 50. Following the all-star break, however, it was as if Stamkos withdrew his pen midsentence. In his last 30 games of 2010-11, he scored just seven times and finished with “only” 45.
“I just want to stay consistent—that’s what every player strives for. You look at the best players in the league, and they’re considered that because they play consistent, game in and game out,” he says. “That’s something I struggled with the latter part of last year, and I learned a lot about myself. I matured as a person and player because of that. I hope I can keep it up and help my team win.”
Although he has 19 more points than Martin St. Louis this season and 34 more than Vincent Lecavalier (to be fair, Stamkos has played more games), Stamkos defers to the captain and the assistant: “(Marty) and Vinny are our leaders, and we follow those guys.” He also sticks up for Tampa Bay netminders Mathieu Garon and Dwayne Roloson, who have been pegged as the reason the Lightning are on the outside looking in.
“Everyone likes to point fingers at the goaltending situation, and I’m sure they’d like to have a couple games back, but our defensive play as a team wasn’t that great. We talked about it a couple weeks ago, and we’ve improved dramatically,” Stamkos says. “You can’t give teams two- or three-goal leads and expect to come back. We’ve established what we need to work on, and I think we’ve done that in the past couple weeks.”
Here’s an already elite player who’s improving his game both offensively and defensively, and he brings the attitude a coach would love. P.S.: The guy just turned 22 last month, making him three years younger than Malkin, two years younger than Claude Giroux, and six years younger than Jason Spezza. In all likelihood, Stamkos’s best statistical year is still ahead of him. Jealous yet?
Despite the brilliant year Stamkos is having, and despite the wealth of veteran talent Tampa Bay boasts up front with St. Louis, Lecavalier, and Ryan Malone, the Lightning as a team have scored 184 goals total this season, the same tally as the notoriously defence-first Nashville Predators.
When we spoke to offensive-minded NHL legend Paul Coffey in December, he criticized Lightning coach Guy Boucher’s tactics, saying the Lightning forwards should be let loose to attack more frequently.
“Are you kidding me? The attitude should be, if they score seven, let’s go score eight,” Coffey said.
Stamkos believes the trap system that his team operates occasionally has drawn an inordinate amount of attention, particularly because of a 2011 game against the Philadelphia Flyers in which Tampa refused to forecheck and the Flyers’ defencemen refused to advance the puck.
“Obviously you’d love to score as many goals as you can, but that’s not the style of hockey that’s being played now. Twenty years ago, it was a lot more wide open. You see how good goalies are now, and you see how systems are implemented in the game. I think people get caught up in us playing the 1-3-1, and that got talked a lot about with us playing the Philly game this year, but I don’t think we play it as much as some other teams in the league,” he says.
“We only play it when we’re up a goal or we need to protect a lead. If not, we have a lot of speed on our team and we like to utilize it. For the people that see us play on a regular basis, they know we don’t always play that style, but it gets overlooked sometimes.”
And that’s coming from a guy who knows a thing or two about being overlooked.
Who do you think will win the NHL scoring race?