Tampa Bay rookie Steven Stamkos
used interim coach Rick Tocchet
's plan as motivation.
Send me to the press box? Make me a healthy scratch? Tell me watch my team play while wearing a suit? Make me take notes on what I saw?
I'll show you, coach.
"I didn't want to be in the press box watching games," Stamkos told NHL.com. "My motto was to play so well that they didn't have the opportunity to take me out of the lineup. That mentality helped me and I haven't been a healthy scratch since."
Tocchet's original plan, one he came up with prior to the All-Star break, was to scratch the first pick of the 2008 Entry Draft occasionally so he could focus on his conditioning and learn the NHL game, specifically the defensive side of it, by watching instead of playing.
Tocchet scratched Stamkos twice before the All-Star break and one time after, but with the way Stamkos started the second half, the coach had no choice but to write the 19-year-old rookie's name on his lineup card every night.
It would have been foolish not to.
Stamkos has been a near point-per-game player since competing in the YoungStars Game presented by Upper Deck in Montreal during NHL All-Star Weekend. He finished with 17 goals and 28 points in 34 games after the All-Star break, after posting just 6 goals and 18 points in 45 games before it.
Stamkos finished with 23 goals, breaking by one Brad Richards
' franchise record for goals in a season by a rookie, and his 46 points is 18 more than Vincent Lecavalier
had as an 18-year-old rookie in 1998-99. On Feb. 17 he became the second-youngest player in NHL history to record a natural hat trick.
"My role is to put up points, score goals and give out assists, be an offensive player," Stamkos said. "In the second half I proved to myself that I can be that player. I will go into the summer feeling a lot better."
Last summer, Stamkos went through the whirlwind of the draft, followed by rookie camp and his NHL first training camp. He knew he was heading to Tampa as soon as the Lightning won the draft lottery, so just about everything he did was documented in the media. He was the No. 1 pick and a truckload of expectations were heaped upon him.
The Lightning even centered a marketing campaign on him, creating a Web site called SeenStamkos.com.
All the while, Stamkos wasn't sure how he would handle the NHL and the rigors of playing against the best players in the world. He didn't know anything.
"I was excited and nervous, but you don't know what to expect and you don't know how you're going to play or how you're going to do," Stamkos said. "The second half showed me, the coaching staff and my teammates what I can do given the right situation."
He is far from a finished product, but at least now Stamkos knows what it takes.
For one, he figured out about halfway through the season that he needed to be a lot stronger to play in the NHL. He attributes a lot of his success since the All-Star break to working on a program with Tampa Bay's strength and conditioning coach, something he never had to do when he played for the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League.
"At times I definitely saw myself being pushed around or not winning as many battles that I'd like to win," Stamkos said. "It's a big difference coming from junior (and) playing against men now. It's a big adjustment, but in the second half I worked with our strength and conditioning coach. We got a program going and I got stronger and faster.
"Sometimes I have to realize that I'm still young and still growing into my body and I still have years in front of me. You don't want to go too fast. It's a gradual process, but I needed to get stronger to play in this League."
With added strength came production, and that brought in a healthy dose of confidence, enough to force Tocchet to keep him in the lineup. Stamkos fewer than 14 minutes five times in his last 34 games, and more than 20 minutes nine times. He played less than 14 minutes 34 times in his first 45 games, including nine games with fewer than 10 minutes on the ice.
The game slowed down for him and Stamkos started playing like a No. 1 pick. He even saw time on the penalty kill. That's something a young player has to earn, and Stamkos did.
"The work paid off," Stamkos said. "In junior you could get by on your skill, but here there are so many skill players and you have to have a combination of things to be a successful player. You don't realize that coming in, but I definitely realize that now."
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com.