was everywhere, zipping around, between, through Maple Leafs with the puck, winning his share of battles in the corners and in the face-off circle.
He finished with six shots, his second highest total of the season. His game-winning goal came off a nifty move to the middle, using the Toronto defensemen as a screen, before beating veteran goalie Curtis Joseph with a wicked wrist shot.
Stamkos followed that performance by becoming the first Lightning rookie to record a hat trick five days later against Chicago. It was all an example of Stamkos’ development through the last month, and a snapshot of just part of what the first pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft can be for the Lightning.
“He adds the youthfulness that we need,” Lightning interim coach Rick Tocchet said. “He’s got to be that way, bouncing around on the ice, taking hits, giving hits. As much as we want him to have the puck, he’s got to be able to play that ugly game, too. I think he’s starting to supply that for us.”
Through the first 40 games, Stamkos had four goals and 10 assists, and was a minus-11. There were plenty of highlights. It wasn’t difficult to see the talent oozing out of him. But the Lightning brass decided it was time to put Stamkos on a program to improve his strength, command of the ice and consistency.
Stamkos sat out the game in Anaheim Jan. 9 and worked extra time on and off the ice with assistant coach Wes Walz. He got a birds-eye view of the game, watched tape, walked out of practice last. He went back to school.
“Whenever you get a chance to watch a game from above, you learn,” said Stamkos, who turned 19 Feb. 7. “For me, it was more from focusing on the little things that I didn’t think were as important at the beginning of the season like defensive coverage, where to be in the offensive zone to get your shot off.
“If you watch tapes of me now and watch some from the beginning of the year, the difference is night and day.”
Stamkos played three games, sat, then played three games and sat. He has now played seven straight.
In the 13 games since Stamkos began the program, he has six goals and five assists and is a plus-4. His teammates have noticed a difference.
“I just think it’s his awareness without the puck, his positioning,” Lightning wing Martin St. Louis
said. “He puts himself in better positions to be successful, to be a factor.”
There aren’t many better players for Stamkos to watch than St. Louis.
If you watch tapes of me now and watch some from the beginning of the year, the difference is night and day. - Steven Stamkos
“When you have a chance to play on a team with a player of his caliber, it’s an honor,” Stamkos said. “It’s fun at the same time to watch him in practice and how hard he works and competes in games.
“I wouldn’t say I have the world-class speed that he has. But speed is one of the attributes that is strong in my game and if you can pick up any techniques or things that Marty does great and learn from that, that’s what I’m trying to do here.”
Stamkos is soaking up anything he can, listening to veterans like Gary Roberts, Mark Recchi, St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier
. He isn’t unlike a lot of top picks at this stage in his career. Joe Thornton had seven points in 55 games his rookie year. Rick Nash had 39 points. Vincent Lecavalier
had 13 goals and 15 assists at 18.
It will take time. Stamkos knows it’s a process. But he is feeling more comfortable each game.
“It all comes down to confidence,” Stamkos said. “Once you have that confidence in your game, you see yourself making plays that you made in juniors. The last few weeks, my confidence level is really peaking. I’m starting to get some points here and helping this team win. I’m going to do anything I can to do that.”
Tocchet said he sees Stamkos learning every day, getting stronger. His play through the neutral zone has improved a lot and his defensive positioning has been better.
“I think there are some highly-touted rookies that played last year and the year before that people may think are ahead of Steven,” Tocchet said. “But if he sticks with the program and has a great summer, I believe he’s going to surpass a lot of those guys. He has the talent. There’s just things he’s got to work on.
“The sky is the limit for him. But we have to make sure we go through the process with him.”