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Stamkos perseveres, closes in on 400 goals in NHL with Lightning

Captain returning to roots as scorer with injuries in past

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / Staff Writer

The laugh is rueful, a combination of missed opportunities and missed games, of rehab and returns. Steven Stamkos is thinking about milestones in this moment, which is a reminder of both where he is and where he could be.

"We should be talking about 500 right now, probably," Stamkos said.

Instead, the number is 400. Which, of course, is a cause for celebration. Only 97 players in the history of the NHL have made it to 400 goals, a number that Stamkos is poised to hit before his 30th birthday, currently standing at 397 ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning's game against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Amalie Arena on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN).

And yet, the Lightning captain can't help but consider the other side.

In his 11 NHL seasons prior to this one, including a 48-game lockout-shortened season in 2012-13, Stamkos has played every game five times and between 77 and 79 games three times. But it's those other two seasons, 2013-14 when he played 37 and 2016-17 when he played 17 that still rankle. 

Video: TBL@MTL: Stamkos blasts power-play goal past Price

Because had he played 82 games in each of those seasons, the center would have had 110 more games, which at his career rate of 0.53 goals per game would give him 58 more goals -- and yes, he would have been closer to 500 than 400.

"It's not a lot that I think about those numbers, but there are a few times where you're sitting in the backyard in the summer, having a beer with some buddies and they remind me I've missed 100-and-something games and what you could be at individually," said Stamkos, who has scored four goals in his first eight games this season. "At those rare moments where I do think about it, it [stinks].

"But to still be able to do what I've done after going through some very significant injuries and some tough rehab, it just put things into perspective a little bit that you just have to enjoy the career that you have. You never know what's going to happen. To be closing in on some milestones like that even though I've gone through that is … when I think about it, it's pretty cool."

Stamkos made his NHL debut in 2008-09 when he was 18, scoring 23 goals in his rookie year. He quickly added seasons of 51, 45, and 60 goals, becoming one of the most dynamic players and goal-scorers in the NHL.

But then came Nov. 11, 2013, and it's never quite been the same since.

The then-23 year-old went crashing into a goal post at TD Garden on a backcheck by Boston Bruins defenseman Dougie Hamilton. Stamkos, who felt like he was at the apex of his game, broke his right tibia. More bad luck would follow, with a blood clot and a torn meniscus, and a string of missed games at a time when it had seemed like Stamkos could score at will.

Video: TBL@BOS: Stamkos goes top shelf to beat Rask in SO

He is not that player anymore. He likely never will be again, primarily as a result of the effects of all those injuries, of the ways when he has to compensate for what has happened to him.

But after an evolution that saw Stamkos become more of a playmaker than ever before in his NHL career in 2017-18, when he had 59 assists against only 27 goals, he is trending back toward the style of player that made his name as a goal-scorer earlier in his career. And it has him nearing some of the greats.

In a historic season for the Lightning in 2018-19 with an NHL record-tying 62 wins, Stamkos scored 45 goals, his highest total since he led the League with 60 in 2011-12.

"It felt good to get back to those really elite numbers again as an individual and focus on shooting the puck a little more last year as well," Stamkos said. "The year before that it was more of a playmaking role and [last season] got back to my roots where kind of a shoot-first mentality. It was nice to get back into the 40s."

Video: TBL@TOR: Stamkos finishes nice passing for PPG

It's a balance now, a balance of shooting at the right moments, of passing at the right moments, of making use of the incredible assemblage of talent currently on the Lightning's top line, where Stamkos plays alongside Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point.

"Still, even now, there's certain opportunities where I should be shooting it a little more," Stamkos said. "Everyone always gets on me about shooting the puck a little more. And I should. It's just sometimes when you're playing with guys like [Kucherov] or [Point] who can put the puck in the net, whereas before coming up as a younger kid I was with [Martin St. Louis] and it was, 'Get me the puck and get open,' and so I'd get him the puck and get open and he would yell at me to shoot all the time."

It's not quite that easy now. Because Stamkos is not the clear-cut shooter on his line anymore, he doesn't always have the immediate reaction to shoot. He sometimes defers too much. As he said, "I've got to be more consistent with realizing the quality of my shot and I can score some more goals if I have that mentality."

Three more and he'll have 400.

It's both exactly what was always expected from Stamkos, and something that at times seemed like it might be a pipe dream, in the low moments after the injuries and the health scares, after the missed games and lost seasons.

"I know how hard I've worked, and I've continued to have to work," Stamkos said. "There's still some effects that you feel from injuries like that. So it's still a work in progress every day, but I definitely appreciate what I have even more."

Stamkos, in his 12th season in the NHL, doesn't turn 30 until Feb. 7. There is time left to hit those additional milestones, to rocket toward 500 -- and beyond.

"The one great thing about [Stamkos] is he's still young," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "He's got a ton of games in him and I think when it's all said and done it won't be looking at how quick he got to 400, it might be looking at, did he get to 600.

"And that's an unreal achievement to do in the best league in the world."



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