ZURICH-KLOTEN – Steve Stamkos has had a busy year. Drafted first overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2008, Stamkos made his first NHL camp that fall, and endured some criticism that might undermine the confidence of any nineteen year old with something to prove.
Now a member of Team Canada, Stamkos has given fans in attendance in Kloten a taste of what might lie ahead if he continues to develop as a world class player.
Stamkos came out of junior hockey an ultra-talented, can’t miss player. Stamkos starred for the Sarnia Sting in the OHL. Blessed with quick hands and hard wrist shot, Stamkos potted 100 goals in his two seasons with Sarnia. As a sign of his ability as a powerplay specialist, 45 of his goals came with the man advantage.
Tampa Bay made it clear coming into the 2008 NHL entry draft that the Markham native would be their guy. With new ownership, a new coach, and notable free agent signings in place, Tampa Bay was looking to get back to the heights of success that saw them win the Stanley Cup in 2004. But things did not get off to a good start.
For any young player, there is a period of adjustment to the NHL. In one early stretch the Lightning had six games in nine nights. As well, there’s the mental adjustment that a young man has to make in going up against experiences and well-established men.
“It was an adjustment, for sure, because you’re going against experienced players in the league. The travel takes some getting used to but that’s all part of being a professional.”
It’s almost fitting that Stamkos’ season ends where it began: Europe. Tampa’s opening game of the 2008-09 regular season was against the New York Rangers in Prague, Czech Republic.
“Every kid dreams about his NHL debut being in front of the home crowd so starting my career overseas was a different experience, but a great one.”
As the season progressed there was turmoil surrounding the team and new head coach Barry Melrose. Sixteen games into the season Melrose was fired and replaced by assistant coach Rick Tocchet.
The firing of Melrose put Stamkos squarely in the middle. In comments some days after being let go, Melrose said publicly that Stamkos wasn’t ready for the NHL and that the only reason he was on the team was because management wanted its future star player and number one draft pick in the lineup. That one had to hurt.
“It was tough not playing a lot early on with all the expectations and I wasn’t playing much and there was that tension surrounding the team,” said Stamkos. “In looking back on it, I learned a lot and it definitely builds character. If you work hard it makes you a better player and I was fortunate to get an opportunity to play with Marty St. Louis over the second half of the season.”
Under Tocchet’s watchful eye, Stamkos spent time spent on his conditioning and building muscle, and watching footage that really helped his game. He was a healthy scratch for three games during the season. But overall the transformation was complete.
In his first 40 games, he scored four goals and 13 points in the first half of the season. In the second half he scored 19 goals and 32 points in 39 games. And based on what we’ve seen thus far in Kloten, these World Championships will further his progress as a player.
“I want to prove that I can play at this level. This tournament is a chance to begin friendships with the guys and learn as much as I can that will help improve my game.”
One need only look at his first game against Belarus. Stamkos was engaged and present at all times on the ice. Not only were his two goals all that Canada needed for the win, but he would skate well and got some good hits in early.
“It’s been a long season but this is the most amazing opportunity to pull on the Canadian jersey and play for the national team. It is truly unbelievable and a different feeling. Being a member of Team Canada means I am representing my family, my friends, my country.”
Maturation is the process by which a player either gets it and grows up, or fades into obscurity. Looking at how Stamkos has endured and is now playing with confidence suggests he gets it; he really gets it. And he’ll be a fixture in the NHL and for Team Canada when available.