Ask Lightning head coach Guy Boucher what most impresses him about Steven Stamkos these days, and take caution, for the answer may cause one to raise their eyebrows as much as one of the Lightning forward’s eye-popping, highlight-reel goals.
His special scoring ability is reason enough as to why he is one of the game’s youngest and brightest stars, but it was his improved ability to back check and play a more sound defensive game, that as of late, has struck a chord with Boucher.
That Stamkos has succeeded in rounding out his skills in multiple facets of the game besides just offense serves as a good barometer for just how much the 21-year-old center is evolving into a more complete player.
“Like I’ve always said, everything is a process,” Boucher said. “And he’s further along in the steps now than he was last year. There’s not a lot that’s missing in his game right now. I find that he's made a difference just as much when he didn’t have the puck as when he’s had the puck, and that's a mark of somebody who is becoming more of a winner than a star.” Boucher, when asked just what exactly makes Stamkos so good, sounds as if he is reading from a list of prepared responses.
“He's part of the team, he's been doing great with his work ethic, he’s been terrific with leadership, and he has that drive,'' Boucher said.
"And I loved his back check. You could see four or five times that he was just a jet out there. It's inspiring.”
It’s safe to say that Stamkos has lived up to the expectations of being selected with the first overall choice in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.
In fact, in many ways, he’s exceeded them.
As good as Stamkos has been in each of his first three seasons, it wasn’t until after agreeing to a five-year contract extension last summer that he was determined to further develop his game. Included in that process was becoming more efficient on the faceoff dot, playing tighter in the defensive zone and embracing the opportunity to kill off opposing power-play chances.
In what seems like an opposite role than what he has been accustomed to since entering the league, the chance to do more on the ice outside of his comfort zone actually complements his opportunities on offense.
“It's just focusing on the small details,” Stamkos said. “When things aren't going well, you tend to want to cheat to create offensive chances when it should be the other way around. You have to get back to playing solid defensive hockey, which leads to your chances.”
And yes, while he’s been good at doing other things in recent games, he can still score too.
“He gets goals all kinds of ways,” Boucher said. “He’s scoring on the rush, on screens, high screens, high tips, one-timer, power play, rebounds.”
But is Stamkos a complete player?
“We don’t want to make a guy feel like he’s there already,” Boucher said smiling. “But, oh, he’s getting there.”