Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos experienced a severe injury as a professional for the first time last season when he wrapped his right leg around the goal post at Boston’s TD Garden in the second period of an early-season game against the Bruins and broke his tibia.
Although he returned to the ice March 6 and played in 24 more games to close out the 2013-14 season, including four playoff games against Montreal, Stamkos never regained full strength.
Three weeks ago, Stamkos had a planned procedure to remove a screw in his leg – he still has one more that will remain provided it doesn’t become an issue – and the 24-year-old No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft said that he is close to 100 percent, closer than he has been at any point this offseason.
“Sometimes you still have to look back, and it hasn’t even been a year yet [since the injury],” Stamkos said following informal workouts from the Lightning’s practice facility at the Brandon Ice Sports Forum. “Usually they say stuff like that takes a full year to where it feels as close, but it never feels exactly the same. But, it’s way better off than where it was at the end of the year. I’m pretty positive it’s just going to continue to get better as they work on it, as the season progresses. It’s the best it’s felt heading into this year, for sure.”
Stamkos started his offseason routine earlier than usual, trying to strengthen his right leg by pushing it in the gym and on the ice. The results have been encouraging.
“It feels much stronger,” Stamkos said. “Mentally, too, you’re in a better state. It’s amazing what time and being able to work on it, being able to strengthen it kind of at your own pace and at your own time and how your body reacts. It’s amazing week after week how much better it feels and how much closer it’s getting to where it was before. I’m excited about that.”
Stamkos is also excited about the team the Lightning will put on the ice when the season opens October 9 against the Florida Panthers at Amalie Arena. Following a season in which Tampa Bay defied conventional thinking by finishing with the third-best record in the Eastern Conference but were upset in the first round of the playoffs by the Canadiens, the Lightning added a group of veteran players to add to a young, talented core, creating a palpable buzz in Tampa Bay.
“Expectations are definitely raised heading into this year,” Stamkos said. “It was a disappointing finish. I think we all learned from that and are excited to go back and kind of prove to everyone that last year wasn’t just a fluke. We overcame a lot of adversity, and, hopefully, this year we don’t have to. We can just build on (last season).”
In his first game back from injury last season, Stamkos was named team captain to replace the traded Martin St. Louis. Going into the 2014-15 season as the team’s undisputed leader, Stamkos said not much has changed as far as his responsibilities. He’s more focused on getting back on the ice and starting the season positively.
“It’s nice to kind of have a test run (as captain) last year,” Stamkos said. “That’s the thing, you don’t want to change much. I’ve been a leader on this team for a while. I’ve been able to learn from past guys that I played with at various times in my career. We have a great leadership group in here. It’s pretty easy coming in and sharing that load with all those guys. You try not to change much and think about it too much. Sometimes you get in trouble when you overanalyze situations. We have a great core down here, and I’m just excited to work within that.”