There wasn't much suspense, but it was no less of a thrill for Steven Stamkos
when he was announced as the first choice of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.
Stamkos, the star forward for the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League, was selected by the Tampa Bay Lightning
to kick off Friday's selection show.
"I just had relief," Stamkos said. "There's been a lot of talk about Tampa taking me, and I was throwing the ifs out there a lot, if I get drafted there. But now that I'm part of the Tampa Bay family, the organization, it's a dream come true for me and I couldn't be happier."
The organization, which includes a new ownership group led by Hollywood producer Oren Koules and former NHL player Len Barrie
, is just as happy to have a player who finished second in the OHL with 58 goals this past season, and who was the top-ranked North American skater by NHL Central Scouting all season.
The Lightning already have penciled Stamkos into the second-line center spot when Tampa opens the 2008-09 season in Prague, Czech Republic.
"We think he's NHL-ready right now," said Lightning General Manager Jay Feaster. "At the NHL trade deadline when we traded Brad (Richards), we knew we'd immediately be looking for a second-line center. … We think he has the ability to step in and play now. That will be determined by what he does in training camp, but those are the expectations we have."
Stamkos' expectations are the same.
"That's my goal coming in," Stamkos said of playing next season. "I've been working pretty hard to get ready for that. I put a lot of pressure on myself to make it to the National Hockey League as an 18-year-old. Hopefully all goes well and I'll play my first NHL game in October."
Whenever Stamkos makes it to Tampa, he'll have a mentor in Vincent Lecavalier
. Ten years ago, it was Lecavalier standing just where Stamkos stood Friday night – as the first-overall pick of the 1998 NHL Entry Draft.
Lecavalier, though, was saddled with the moniker of being the "Michael Jordan of hockey," by former owner Art Williams.
With a team that includes Lecavalier, former MVP and scoring champion Martin St. Louis
and All-Star defenseman Dan Boyle
, Stamkos isn't facing nearly the kind of pressure Lecavalier did.
"We're not asking him to come in and save the franchise," said Feaster. "I don't think we're as bad as 30th looks on us. So he's been asked to come in and be part of the ensemble and be part of the group.
"At the same time, he does have a young man who's gone through it -- been there, done that. Vincent Lecavalier
is very mindful of what he's gone through, he knows what it was like. To the extent he can spare a teammate some of what he went through, I know that he's going to help him."
"I think this is the best situation for me, to have a guy like Vincent Lecavalier
who was drafted to the same organization first overall," said Stamkos. "I can learn so much from him, (and) they've got guys like St. Louis and Boyle, all proven stars in the NHL. What better guys to learn from as an 18-year-old coming in."
Stamkos seems virtually immune from the pressure that has followed him for so long. Two years ago, he was the No. 1 overall pick in the OHL Priority Draft and he's been the top-rated player by NHL Central Scouting the entire 2007-08 season.
"I think I put more pressure on myself than anyone," said Stamkos. "I expect myself to compete at the highest level every game, and my goal coming into the season was to get drafted as high as possible and I accomplished my goal. I'm a guy that works very hard and if I want something bad enough I'm going to do anything possible to get it."
Stamkos said his plan for Friday night was to celebrate with the 71 friends and family he brought that came to Ottawa to support him. But after that, he'll head to Tampa.
Stamkos was the subject of a major marketing campaign in South Florida, including a Web site, SeenStamkos.com.
"I guess they can finally say they'll be seeing me down there," said Stamkos.
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com.