Tampa Bay forward Paul Szczechura sat in front of his locker, wiped a bead of sweat from his brow with a towel and then uttered the words that signal every rookie’s right of passage. In the process, he made quite an impact on Interim Head Coach Rick Tocchet.
In a season in which Tocchet has had ample opportunities to evaluate some of the newest Lightning talent, Szczechura’s two-point effort against visiting Pittsburgh wasn’t just a breakout performance. It was a potential turning point in his career.
“It seemed like the game slowed down for me,” Szczechura said. “It seemed like I had more time with the puck than I’m used to.”
And with those words and what they signify, Szczechura ceased being a rookie.
It’s a moment Tampa Bay veteran captain Vincent Lecavalier
reflected upon and noted is so critical for every young player. It can only be obtained through dedication and playing time, Lecavalier said, and occurs for all players at different points of their career. Whether it comes early or later than others, it’s not until a player has the ability to see the game in a new light, from a different angle and, most importantly, at a slower pace, that the true maturation process begins.
“Sure I can remember when it happened for me,” Lecavalier said. “I think it was about 30-40 games into my rookie season. I just remember feeling so much more confident with the puck. It takes a little time for every player to adjust to the speed of the game at this level.
“Once you get to that point where players aren’t skating past you all game, you can start becoming a much better player.”
If one compares Szczechura’s play through his first 29 games, a stark difference is eminent. Like most rookies, Szczechura spent much of the initial time following a call up from AHL Norfolk tentative, cautious and seemingly more concerned with attempting to avoid mistakes than with creating scoring opportunities. Flash ahead to the Lightning’s final home games this season against the Penguins and Capitals and a completely different player emerges. Just as was the case with Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis
and Ryan Malone
seasons ago, and even Steven Stamkos
earlier this season, Szczechura now looks to make plays rather than avoid mistakes. Passes find teammates’ sticks in stride, shots are aimed to openings instead of just sent on goal, checks are finished stronger, defense is tighter and, most importantly, confidence has never been higher.
My confidence is really high and when you’re playing with confidence that’s when you play well. - Paul Szczechura
Basically, Szczechura is spending less time attempting to earn a position with Tampa Bay and more time playing as one of its most reliable newcomers.
“I totally understand what he’s saying,” Tocchet said of Szczechura’s breakthrough moment. “After one or two months of practice it does slow down. He absolutely is playing his best hockey now.”
For Szczechura, as important a step as he’s taken at the end of this season, its result isn’t surprising and it didn’t come about through anything but hard work and time.
“My confidence is really high and when you’re playing with confidence that’s when you play well,” he said.
Still, he’s not about to take this opportunity lightly or allow complacency to delay his progression as a player during the off season. It’s a promise Lecavalier highly advises all young players to keep, as he warned fortunes and performance can waver just as quickly.
“It happens every year,” the captain said. “You’re going to go through those five or six games when you’re not scoring goals and you lose some confidence. All of a sudden you get back to where you were before and worry if you’ll ever play at that high level again.
“You know, it takes just one goal for you to start getting all that confidence back again.”
And for a young player like Szczechura, that could be the difference between the beginning of an NHL career in Tampa or an unwanted return trip to Norfolk, because as Tocchet said, “he’s got a good chance to make our team next year.”