Steven Stamkos’ leap back into lethal scorer status

Watch as Steven Stamkos is booed by some fans at the Air Canada Centre then capitalizes off a turnover to score.

While Steven Stamkos and the Tampa Bay Lightning got through a season of his impending free agency capped by a playoff run that fell just short of a second straight Stanley Cup final appearance, a sneaky subplot was that his performance had started to show signs of decline.

He scored 36 goals, which was still good for top 10 in the league, but peeling back a few layers beyond just the raw counting stats revealed a slow decline in effectiveness relative to his exceedingly lofty standards. This is particularly true at the five-on-five level, where his underlying numbers atrophied for the third straight season. In 2015-16 Stamkos wound up as a negative possession player relative to the rest of his team for the first time since 2010-11, while dipping below the two-points-per-60 minutes threshold for the first time since his rookie season.

The concern about his play reached the point where, amidst all of the talk about the exuberant prices he’d fetch on the open market, I made the case that Tampa Bay’s top priority should instead be to focus on locking up their other high octane-scorer, even if it meant letting someone else pick up the tab on Stamkos.

It turns out that didn’t matter, because Steve Yzerman is pretty good at his job and managed to find a way to fit everyone in under the cap (including both Victor Hedman and Alex Killorn).

As such it’s not all that surprising the Lightning are once again looking like a top team in the Eastern Conference. They’re young, deep, immensely skilled, and have high-end players at every position.

What has been a somewhat more surprising (and either encouraging or frightening, depending on your viewpoint) development in this early season is that amongst everything else the Lightning have going for them, Stamkos appears to have righted whatever was slowing him down in the past. Beyond just the seven goals and 12 points, which are good for first and second in the league respectively, he’s gotten back to his old trigger-happy ways:

(all data during 5-on-5 play, and courtesy of Corsica)

The results are great, but the manner in which he’s gotten there is just as important. Not only is Stamkos back to shooting the puck more frequently, but he’s doing so from even more dangerous areas on the ice. While it’s possible this is just some early season statistical shenanigans, it’s worth noting he’s significantly shrunk the average distance from which he’s been firing. Sportlogiq’s in-house data confirms both the frequency and proximity:

(all data is per-60 minutes of 5-on-5 play)

Shooters shoot, and Stamkos has been the league’s most lethal shooter and finisher since the moment he stepped into the league. Good things happen whenever he’s able to put the puck on net, so the fact he’s been able to recapture the underlying form he had during his 60-goal explosion a handful of years ago is a tremendous sign. Whether it’s just noise or an actual fundamental change in his game is something that’ll be worth monitoring as the season progresses.

The question of what’s been behind the resurgence, though, is also an interesting one. One possible explanation is that he’s finally being utilized optimally and being put in a position to succeed by his coach.

That wasn’t the case last season, when his usage was all over the place. Jon Cooper had Stamkos play nearly 100 minutes with six different line combinations, with Ryan Callahan and Alex Killorn being the most common one (the three of them spent approximately 200 minutes at 5-on-5 together and Stamkos played with both of them individually north of 400 minutes). With all due respect to those two players, not only is there a talent gap between them and Stamkos, but there’s also a noticeable lack of ability to get him the puck in prime scoring position.

Only exacerbating that mess was Jonathan Drouin’s holdout, because on paper he was always the perfect wingman in waiting to fill the void left by Martin St. Louis’ departure. After spending just 134 minutes total together last season, Drouin and Stamkos have been united for nearly an hour’s worth of action so far this year. It turns out that putting your most dynamic playmaker next to your most dynamic goal scorer leads to good things:

In the rest of the time when he hasn’t been with Drouin, Stamkos has gotten to fill the cushy Tyler Johnson role centring Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov. Unlike last season, Stamkos has been riding shotgun with players who excel at transitioning the puck through the neutral zone and thrive in delivering it to him in the offensive zone where he can finish.

Whether it is having more compatible linemates or just playing more freely with all of last year’s drama in the rearview mirror, there’s no question Stamkos looks better than he has in some time. For the Lightning, that must be a relief after the long-term investment they made in him this past summer. For the rest of the league, Tampa Bay may be even tougher than ever to deal with now and that’s a legitimate problem.

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