The day the Tampa Bay Lightning departed for Europe for Bridgestone NHL Premiere 2008, rookie center Steven Stamkos started to understand the reality of his new world.
"I went from being a veteran guy on my junior team to the youngest guy here by about five years," the 18-year-old No. 1 draft pick told NHL.com. "Guys have different lifestyles here. They have families and kids. I'm still looking for a place to live and a car."
Welcome to the NHL, young fella. It may be a young man's League, but you have to play and act like an adult to survive here. So, it's a good thing Stamkos is growing up fast, not that he has much of a choice in the matter.
The revamped Lightning made a statement that Stamkos was very much in their plans for 2008-09 when they didn't send him to the Traverse City Prospects Tournament. He would have missed a day of training camp.
In the season opener in Prague against the New York Rangers, Stamkos was centering the second line between Ryan Malone and Radim Vrbata. By the second game, he earned a spot on the second power-play unit because, "He'll shoot the puck," Bolts coach Barry Melrose said.
Through 5 games this season, Stamkos is still looking for his first point, but he's averaging 10:32 minutes per game and still centering that second line. He didn't have a point in the two games in Prague, but he had at least three great scoring chances, including a breakaway thwarted by Henrik Lundqvist and a rising slap shot that zipped past Wade Redden's head and rang off the crossbar.
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"There is a lot of maturity in his play," Lightning forward Martin St. Louis told NHL.com. "You can tell he's got all the skills. You can tell why he was the first pick overall. We haven't had that kind of talent at that age come into this organization in a long time. From what I have seen, Stamkos has the ability to live up to the expectations."
Those are some pretty lofty expectations St. Louis is talking about. Over the summer, some hockey pundits were saying Stamkos was coming into the NHL with more hype than anyone since 2005 when a rookie and first overall pick by the name of Sidney Crosby made his NHL debut.
Stamkos, though, doesn't have to worry about satisfying such elevated expectations within his own organization. Unlike the Penguins circa 2005-06, the Lightning are a veteran group and won't be relying on Stamkos as the savior.
For this season at least, Stamkos just has to fit in.
"He doesn't have to come in here and play a ton of minutes," Tampa's VP of Hockey Operations Brian Lawton told NHL.com. "He can find himself getting better by the game. He's going to be a significant player for us for a long time … but Steven is here to earn his stripes. He has to prove himself. He understands that and he's good with it."
Stamkos believes he was drafted into the perfect situation. He's the youngest player on a team that was overhauled over the summer with new ownership, management, coaches and a host of new players, mostly veterans.
If he wants advice on how to handle the pressure that's associated with being the No. 1 draft pick, he just needs to ask his captain, Vinny Lecavalier, who was the first player taken at the 1998 Draft.
"When you're first overall, there's always going to be pressure," Lecavalier said. Lecavalier, though, was called the "Michael Jordan of hockey" by then-owner Art Williams. Talk about lofty expectations. Talk about pressure.
"I've been lucky enough to have some wiser owners and coaches," Stamkos said. "It's a different situation. I'm not the go-to guy. I'm not the savior of the team. I'm a guy that is going to chip in offensively and play solid defensively."
If Stamkos wants to know about training his body to handle the rigors of an NHL career, he can turn to Gary Roberts and Mark Recchi. Roberts, 42, is in his 21st season. Recchi, 40, is playing his 20th season.
"The biggest difference for all these guys at 18 is they're not full-grown men yet," Lawton said. "Steven is 195 pounds now, but he’ll be 210 and that’s a big difference."
Melrose, Roberts, Recchi, Lecavalier, St. Louis, Malone, Vaclav Prospal and Olaf Kolzig can sit the kid down and tell him what it takes to get to the Stanley Cup Final. Roberts, Recchi, Lecavalier, St. Louis and Prospal can tell him what it's like to win it.
"There are so many things we like about Steven, but it’s really his character," Lawton said. "He’s a great kid. He’s very humble and he’s getting a lot of life’s lessons. I heard one of the veterans explain to him that when we get to the hotel and check in, you don’t ever grab your key and jump in the elevator. You let the other players go. It’s done in a tactful way, but the veteran leadership we have on this club is an enormous advantage for Steven to learn the ropes."
When it comes down to playing the game, the Xs and Os if you will, Stamkos appears to already be a pro. The six preseason games he played in were essential to speeding up his development to NHL standards.
"Every time he hits somebody, he realizes, 'I'm as strong as that guy,'" Melrose said prior to the regular-season opener in Prague. "When he blows by a D, he realizes, 'I'm faster than that guy.' That's just part of the education."
Melrose was especially happy with Stamkos' lone goal of the preseason, which happened 7:01 into the second period against the Rangers on Sept. 23. Stamkos ripped a shot from the right faceoff circle into the upper portion of the net.
"I went from being a veteran guy on my junior team to the youngest guy here by about five years. Guys have different lifestyles here. They have families and kids. I'm still looking for a place to live and a car." -- Steven Stamkos
"He shot the puck and he scored on a shot, and this kid has an unbelievable shot," Melrose said.
"He shot and he scored, that's what I liked about it. That's a great weapon for us. Not everybody can shoot the puck like him, so I love to see him shoot the puck."
Through the first five games of the regular season, Stamkos has only eight shots on goal. Malone said it may take Stamkos a while to figure it all out.
"Sometimes he gets the puck and moves it real quick, but I’m thinking that he should hold on to it and skate around a couple of guys if he wants because he's able to do that," Malone said. "He's just feeling it out still, but he's getting more confident as he goes and he's going to be able to realize what he can do."
When he does, last year's No. 1 draft pick and rookie of the year, Patrick Kane, warns that Stamkos will have to ward off "the wall" that all rookies inevitably hit when the adrenaline runs out.
"When you hit the wall, you realize you're playing against guys like (Nicklas) Lidstrom and (Dion) Phaneuf and you can get a little scared out there," Kane said. "When I started playing well again is when I realized I just had to go play the game the Blackhawks drafted me for, the game I have been playing since I was 10 years old.
"That's the biggest thing, realizing it's just a game," Kane said. "You can't get caught up in the NHL or the media. If he just thinks it's the same game he's been playing all his life, he'll do fine."
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