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Lightning's Stamkos evolving into all-around star

by Dan Rosen / NHL.com

As difficult as Steven Stamkos has been to defend, the Tampa Bay Lightning captain used to be easy to find on the ice.

"He used to post up at that left-wing dot and every goalie in the League knew it was coming and they couldn't stop it," NHL Network and TSN analyst Craig Button said. "It was like a fastball. The fastball is coming and you can't hit it."

It worked well for him. Stamkos scored 51 goals in his second season, including 24 off one-timers, of which 16 came from the left side, 14 from inside the circle.

"His one-timer from that side of the ice made him very famous very quick," former Lightning teammate Martin St. Louis told NHL.com.

YOUNGEST TO 250 NHL GOALS

1. Wayne Gretzky - 22 years, 28 days
2. Mario Lemieux - 23 years, 77 days
3. Dale Hawerchuk - 23 years, 289 days
4. Alex Ovechkin - 24 years, 126 days
5. Pierre Turgeon - 24 years, 199 days
6. Steve Yzerman- 24 years, 222 days
7. Jimmy Carson - 24 years, 241 days
8. Mike Bossy - 24 years, 275 days
9. Michel Goulet - 24 years, 302 days
10. Steven Stamkos - 24 years, 305 days

It also made him somewhat predictable; so much so that defenses started to adjust to him by swinging coverage toward that side of the ice to ensure he wouldn't get the puck with time and space to bury a shot. It was the only way they could help their goaltender.

So Stamkos did the only thing he could do, the only thing smart players like him would do. He started to adjust to the defenses he was seeing. It has turned him into a complete player.

Stamkos scored his 250th career goal Tuesday. At 24 years, 305 days old he became the 10th-youngest player in NHL history to get halfway to 500 goals. He would have gotten there faster had it not been for a broken leg that cost him 45 games last season.

But how he got 250 is as impressive as the time it took him, 439 games.

Stamkos evolved his game without losing his touch as one of the NHL's elite goal scorers of this generation. He leads the League with 176 goals since the 2010-11 season despite missing more than half of last season.

"I think it's about him going into tougher areas a little bit more," Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "When you've got such a great shot you're used to getting into shooting position. It's not that you're against going into traffic or don't want to, it's just that a strength is a strength and you play to your strengths like anybody. I think he realized that when guys started taking away his shot by being close to him, not giving him as much time and space, he had to find ways to chip in in other ways, and being around the net or a give-and-go play with another guy creates space for you. With time he's started to do that more and more."

Stamkos' 17 goals this season have been a study in his evolution. Only two have come off shots from the left circle.

He has scored off a give-and-go, off a post-up at the hash marks, off a stop-and-start move at the hash marks, from the left post after his forecheck created a turnover, three times on breakaways, four times from the right circle and four times because he went to the net.

"As opponents start to take away your strengths you have to adjust what they're doing to you so you have to find other ways to be productive. It's almost like a paradox," Button said. "You're this great player, but then opponents are making sure they can take away parts of your game. And if you don't expand and adjust your game you won't produce anymore. You get to this level because you produced, but if you don't adjust you won't produce and criticism will come. Expanding your game for the best players becomes a natural evolution if you're that smart, and Steven is an exceptionally smart player. He wants to score, but he knew it was a necessity to have his game evolve."

Crosby said Stamkos' ability to find soft spots in the offensive zone has improved to the point where the left circle has become just another spot for Stamkos when before it was his destination.

"If you're stationary on that spot they can depend on you being there and have an eye on you," Crosby said. "But if you start at the net front and end up over there, kind of get lost in coverage, that's the ability to see the game and see those plays develop. He's got that."

Stamkos' evolution isn't limited to how he scores; it's his overall game.

"He reads the game better than when he came in and he sees the ice better," St. Louis said. "He's a better playmaker now. He's not just a shooter. He's aware of his assets, of that shot, but he's done a great job of improving, not just falling into the go-to all the time."

Button said recently he did an in-studio segment on Stamkos' overall game for TSN. He wanted to point out the details in Stamkos' game away from the net.

"I was talking about best players and I said, 'I don't think you guys watch what Stamkos does,'" Button said. "I did a thing on forechecking, creating chances. We had some clips on making passes and breaking people down. Then I had him on a backcheck. I said, 'This is what best players do.'

"He doesn't need to score to help the team be successful now."

Button said Stamkos' evolution reminds him of how Steve Yzerman became a Hockey Hall of Fame center for the Detroit Red Wings. Yzerman, of course, is the Lightning's general manager.

"I remember Scotty Bowman talking about Steve Yzerman and he said, 'When Steve came into Detroit his offensive talents were obvious, that's what they needed, that's what they asked him to do, and very few did it any better,'" Button said. "But Scotty felt Steve could be so good and have an impact in many other areas, not just scoring. I see the same thing with Steven Stamkos. Because he's so smart there's no reason to believe he can't continue to expand his game."

Yzerman had more than 100 points in six consecutive seasons from 1987-93. He scored more than 60 goals twice in that span. Like Stamkos, who has one 60-goal season, Yzerman scored his 250th goal in his seventh season. He was 83 days younger than Stamkos (24 years, 222 days) when he accomplished the feat.

But Yzerman had to evolve into a complete player for the Red Wings to become a Stanley Cup contender.

Yzerman never had a 50-goal or 100-point season after 1992-93, but he had 622 points in 605 games from 1994-2002. The Red Wings won the Stanley Cup three times in that span.

"It's not like he was weighed down. Steve Yzerman is one of the greatest offensive players our game has ever seen," Button said. "But players reach an age when they want to do more. I remember when Jarome Iginla was begging to kill penalties in Calgary because he wanted to be known as an all-around player. I think it's great if you score 50, but I think there is a badge of honor to be called a complete player.

"That's what Steven Stamkos has become."

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