The bar is set high for Steven Stamkos.
The last three forwards chosen first overall in the NHL entry draft – Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin – were impact players immediately in the NHL
Kane and Ovechkin won the league’s rookie award – the Calder Trophy – in their freshman years. Crosby lost out to Ovechkin for the rookie trophy in 2006, but won both the NHL scoring race and Hart Trophy as MVP the following season.
The Tampa Bay Lightning made Stamkos’s name the first one called in June. The 18-year-old from Toronto feels the spotlight on him, but also thinks he’s in the right environment to succeed.
“I think there’s a lot of pressure and big shoes to fill,” Stamkos said. “I’m coming into a great situation here in Tampa. There’s so many veteran players here that have established themselves, like Vincent Lecavalier, who went first overall 10 years ago.
“He went through exactly what I did 10 years ago with the same organization and just to see him progress as a player, what better guy to learn from than him?”
Other rookies to watch this season include Anaheim forward Bobby Ryan, Columbus winger Jakub Voracek, Pittsburgh defenceman Alex Goligoski, Florida forward Shawn Matthias, Los Angeles defenceman Drew Doughty, Ottawa forward Jesse Winchester, New York Rangers forward Lauri Korpikoski and Toronto defenceman Luke Schenn.
Stamkos made his NHL debut in Prague, Czech Republic, on the weekend in the Lightning’s two-game series against the Rangers. He has yet to collect his first NHL point.
The six-foot-one, 196-pound forward totalled three shots on goal over two contests. His playing time increased from eight minutes 25 seconds in the first game to almost 15 minutes in the second.
“There’s definitely not that two-or three-second window of reaction time that you had in junior to make a play and not get hooked or held or a guy right on you,” Stamkos observed.
“Here in the NHL, you may only have half a second to a second to react.”
Stamkos, out of the Ontario Hockey League’s Sarnia Sting, has an excellent skill set he executes at high speed. He had a goal and two assists in six pre-season games and led the Lightning in shots on goal with 11.
“Coach (Barry) Melrose always tells me I have a pretty good shot and he wants me to use it and I think that’s definitely comforting when your coach wants you to shoot the puck,” Stamkos said. “It’s something I’m going to keep on doing and hopefully it leads to success.”
The Lightning have recently acquired a couple of veteran players who can mentor Stamkos. Gary Roberts has been Stamkos’s roommate on the road and Stamkos has also played alongside Mark Recchi, who is closing in on a career 1,400 points.
Stamkos will be less under the microscope in the U.S. sun belt than he would be in a Canadian city or in a northern U.S. market like Chicago, Boston or Philadelphia.
And he’s joined a team that has nowhere to go but up after finishing tied for last in the NHL with Los Angeles last season.
“I’m coming into a situation where there’s definitely not as much pressure,” Stamkos said. “I don’t think we’re a last-place team with all the management and coaching changes and all the players they brought in this summer. I believe we’ve got a great team here and I’m just looking to jump into the mix and do the best I can.”
Here’s a rundown of rookies to watch during the 2008-09 campaign:
-F Bobby Ryan, Anaheim. The No. 2 pick in the 2005 draft behind Sidney Crosby had five goals and five assists in 23 games for the Ducks last season. While his entry into the NHL hasn’t been meteoric, the 21-year-old is still considered to have a lot of upside.
-D Alex Goligsoki, Pittsburgh. The 23-year-old played in the AHL all-star game in his first season as a pro and set an AHL record for playoff points by a defenceman with 28 in 23 games last season.
-F Shawn Matthias, Florida. Towering 19-year-old forward with a big stride scored two goals during his four-game call-up from junior hockey last season.
-D Drew Doughty, Los Angeles. The No. 2 pick in this year’s draft doesn’t turn 19 until December and it’s a lot harder for teenage defencemen to make it in the NHL than it is for forwards of the same age. But the Kings are rebuilding and might count on Doughty’s considerable speed and offensive skills to help them do that.
-F Darren Helm, Detroit. Even though he already has a Stanley Cup ring, the 21-year-old centre is classified as a rookie because he didn’t play more than 25 games for the Wings last season. Eighteen of his 25 were playoff games.
-F Jesse Winchester, Ottawa Senators. The centre from Long Sault, Ont., collected his first NHL point, an assist, in Sunday’s win over Pittsburgh in Stockholm, Sweden.
“You can see his intelligence as a player and, as a 24-year-old, he’s got a man’s body, he’s not a young kid,” head coach Craig Hartsburg said. “His confidence with the puck is improving every day.”
-F Jakub Voracek, Columbus. While much attention was lavished on teammate Nikita Filatov in the pre-season, Voracek was second in Columbus’s pre-season scoring behind Rick Nash with two goals and six assists in seven games. The 19-year-old Czech played for the Halifax Mooseheads last season and finished in the top five in Quebec Major Junior Hockey League scoring.
-D Luke Schenn, Toronto. See Doughty above. The Saskatoon product also has a late birthday and doesn’t turn 19 until November. But the Leafs were impressed enough with his pre-season play to start the year with Schenn, who has been compared to Adam Foote.
-F Lauri Korpikoski, New York Rangers. The 22-year-old Finn is an excellent two-way player with 23 goals and 27 assists and a plus-20 rating through 79 games last season with Hartford.