With a 10-2-1 record out of the gate and averaging more than four goals a game the Tampa Bay Lightning, a popular pick to bounce back to contender status a season after missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs completely, are more than living up to their pre-season hype.
A big reason for that, of course, is the play from top liner Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov who are first and second in NHL scoring with 24 and 21 points, respectively. Stamkos is an especially good story, considering he’s coming back from a major injury on his right knee that sidelined him for all but 17 games last season.
It was the second major injury to his right leg after he broke it in 2014, which cost him a spot on the Canadian Olympic team. It took him a lot of work for him to get back to the top of his game, but even Stamkos says it’s an injury he’ll probably be dealing with to some degree for the rest of his career.
“There’s definitely some limitations in certain movements,” Stamkos said on Sportsnet 590’s Prime Time Sports. “I think I’m always going to be stuck with that, this leg with the broken leg and the metal rod that’s in there and now with knee surgery. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel 100 per cent again, but it’s just getting to that new norm where you’re just going out and playing and not worrying about it and trusting the work you’ve put in. I think that’s where I’m at and for me that’s a good place right now.”
Stamkos said the injury changed the activities he’d usually get up to in the summer (“less golf”) and the way he trained. Rather than running the track and working on agility drills, he instead did some work on trampolines, grappling and gymnastics tumbling.
And it’s clearly worked. With six goals and 18 assists in 13 games, Stamkos is off to the best start of his career at age 27, back to playing centre on the Lightning’s top line with Kucherov and Vladeslav Namestnikov.
But you may notice something curious about his stat line. The one-time 60-goal scorer has three times as many assists as goals to this point, which is surprising considering he’s only ever finished a full season with more assists than goals once: in 2010-11, Stamkos finished with 45 goals and 46 assists. But he insists it’s not a result of anything different he’s doing with his game.
“I haven’t really changed much,” Stamkos said. “I think I’m a guy who’s always read the game and done whatever play I feel is the best at that time and right now with how hot Kucherov is, usually the play is to get him the puck. But I’ve found that in a situation, whether it’s on the power play or 2-on-1, my decision is not based on really because a guy’s hot, it’s what’s the best play in my mind at that time and I’ll make it. It’s just worked out that everything Kuch has been shooting has been great.”
Stamkos, of course, would have been a lock to represent Canada at the Olympics in February if NHL players were going, and it would have been the first time he had gone to the Games. He mentioned how frustrating it was for him in 2014 to work as hard as he did to get back in time, only to fall short and have to watch from home. This time would have been something special for him, although he’s come to terms with the fact NHLers won’t be a part of the 2018 tournament.
Instead, Stamkos will turn his focus inwards to the NHL and his Lightning, with whom he signed an eight-year, $68-million contract in the summer of 2016, days before he would have become the most sought-after UFA of the salary cap era. He had fielded offers from Toronto and other large hockey markets, but he says in the end Tampa Bay was the place that made the most sense for him.
“There were some questions and concerns we had going forward that we had talked about and I was just comfortable being in Tampa and being part of seeing that franchise from where it started to where we are now, which is legitimate Stanley Cup contender,” Stamkos said.
“I’d been so close with Tampa, reaching the finals in Game 6 that I felt that was the best chance for me to win. That’s what it came down to.”
And right now, that looks like a good bet with the Lightning atop the NHL led by a core of high-powered scorers, a talented group of blueliners and a young goalie who looks more than up to the task of holding the title as No. 1.
Stamkos looks like he’s back at the level he was before his most recent leg injury, which spells trouble for the rest of the league, and could end up with the Lightning captain taking home some personal awards at the end of the season.
And hey, maybe even the Stanley Cup, too.