What makes a great captain in the National Hockey League?

Is it standing up and addressing the entire team when something needs to be said?

Is it leading by example through scoring goals or being the first one on the ice for practice?

Is it doing whatever it takes to win, whether that’s blocking shots or throwing hits?

There are multiple ways to lead. Some lead by example with their play on the ice and rarely say a word. Others give outstanding motivational speeches to get their teammates ready for battle. Finding a captain that can do all of the above? That’s rare.

But that’s what the Tampa Bay Lightning have in Steven Stamkos.

As the Bolts enter another do-or-die game against the Florida Panthers Monday night, it would be hard to argue that any player has had a more positive influence on Tampa Bay than Stamkos during the First Round series.

Going into Game 5, the Lightning captain has scored five goals and added one assist, leading the team in goals and ranking tied for first in points after lighting the lamp in each of the Tampa Bay’s first four games this postseason. He’s joined by Colorado’s Valeri Nichushkin and Artturi Lehkonen as the only players in this year’s playoffs to score a goal in each of their team’s first four games with one of Nichushkin’s goals coming on an empty netter.

Stamkos’ five goals are the third-most among all NHL skaters in this year’s postseason while his three power-play goals are tied for the league lead.

But it isn’t just the goal scoring that Stamkos has provided. In fact, it’s far beyond that. His 15 hits are the third-most among all Lightning forwards. He’s also won 54.6% of his faceoffs, trailing only Nick Paul (54.7%) and Luke Glendening (57.1%) for the Bolts team lead.

Everyone knows about Stamkos’ ability to put the puck in the back of the net. He’s elite. Only 29 players in NHL history have scored more goals than he has. Yet, even though he doesn’t have to do it as a skilled player, Stamkos has shown a willingness to drop the gloves and stand up for his teammates. See last year’s gutsy postseason tilt with Auston Matthews.

Beyond his actions and achievements on the ice during games, Stamkos’ leadership away from games has been just as valuable. Following a tough loss in Game 1 at Amerant Bank Arena, the Bolts were right back at practice the following day. Who was the first player on the ice? Stamkos.

The ability to lead a team wasn’t cultivated overnight. Like everything else, it’s been a process. And just like every process he’s gone through in his career, Stamkos has far exceeded expectations.

“When Steven was younger, he was the 60-goal sniper and those responsibilities didn't really fall in his lap,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said Monday. “When the team needs a boost, whether it's on the ice or in the locker room, it used to be Stammer would have to go out and score a goal to get that boost.

“Now, he does it in so many different ways – his leadership, how calm he is, his feistiness. I think he's obviously scored some big goals in this series, but he's laid out some big hits in this series. That's really been galvanizing.

“He’s going to go in the Hall of Fame one day and people are going to know him as a scorer, but the people that have been around him for this long will know he was much more than that.”

In another do-or-die game Saturday night in Tampa, fans, teammates and coaches witnessed one of those galvanizing moments when Vladimir Tarasenko took a run at Stamkos in the corner. Stamkos got the better of Tarasenko, who is officially listed at 219 pounds, 26 pounds heavier than the Lightning captain.

But it was more than just the big hit. It was the extra shove after the fact, followed by going nose to nose with the Florida forward right in front of the Tampa Bay bench. It’s the swagger and the confidence from a player that racked up 40 goals this season that undoubtedly made every player on the Lightning bench stand a little bit taller.

One of the players on that bench was Mikhail Sergachev, who made his return to the Tampa Bay lineup just 79 days after having surgery to stabilize fractures to both the tibia and fibula in his left leg.

Following the game, Sergachev gave credit to Stamkos for helping motivate him during the rehab process.

“I want to thank Stammer, actually, because he broke his leg and Mikey, our trainer, was showing me videos of Stammer skating like four weeks after,” Sergachev said following Game 4. “That kind of pushed me and made me work because the first four weeks since the injury, it was tough, mentally. But seeing those videos of him walking pretty much the next day and doing all that stuff kind of helped.”

Two days prior to Game 4, the Bolts pulled Andrei Vasilevskiy for an extra attacker in hopes of tying the game late in the third period. With the net empty, Tarasenko gained possession of the puck and made his way into the Tampa Bay zone. All that stood between him and the open cage was Stamkos, who willingly went down and blocked the shot to give his team a chance to even the score.

“It’s just the way he controls the room,” Lightning forward Nick Paul explained Monday morning. “When he speaks up, everyone listens. It's not about leaders just always talking and saying the right things. You’ve got to go out and do it. I think he's a prime example of that.

“If we’re going into the fight, he's leading the charge and he's leading us into battle. He’s just a gamer. He gets us up with big goals. He finishes hits and plays the right way. He’s just a great leader to get behind.”

Paul hit the nail on the head. Leaders can give great speeches and say all the right things. But if they don’t go out there and do all the things they’re asking of others, the message is eventually going to fall on deaf ears.

And that’s just another example of what makes Stamkos such a great captain. He doesn’t ask his teammates to do a single thing that he won’t go out and do himself. He’s an honest player that has shown a willingness to do whatever it takes to win.

As a result of being one of the most respected players across the hockey world, Stamkos won the Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award in 2023, an award that is presented to the player who exemplifies great leadership qualities on and off the ice and who plays a leading role in his community growing the game of hockey.

Stamkos has been a massive supporter of the Ronald McDonald House of Tampa Bay for over a decade, helpinggenerate over $180,000 through his goals and assists program. Additionally, when Stamkos got married in 2017, he and his wife requested that guests donate to the Ronald McDonald House in lieu of giving gifts.

On and off the ice, Stamkos is one of the best leaders of this generation. Going into Game 5, the Bolts will need him at his best once again. Combining regular season and playoff contests over the past month, Stamkos has scored 16 goals in 15 games, the most among all NHL skaters during that span.

He’ll look to continue that success as the Lightning aim to force a Game 6 when the puck drops at 7 p.m. ET tonight at Amerant Bank Arena.