TAMPA, Fla. – Steven Stamkos knows taking the next step and becoming an elite team won’t come easy for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
With their 21-year-old star teaming with Martin St. Louis to form one of the highest scoring tandems in the NHL, the Lightning came within one victory of reaching the Stanley Cup finals last spring and created heightened expectations for this season.
“It’s going to be tougher this year … Teams are not going to take us lightly,” Stamkos said. “They know what to expect, so we’ve got to be ready.”
A franchise in disarray before Boston financier Jeff Vinik purchased the club in March 2010, the Lightning made a dramatic transformation on the ice under first-year general manager Steve Yzerman and coach Guy Boucher en route to a surprising run in the playoffs.
A 1-0 loss to the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals stopped the Lightning’s bid to play in the finals for the first time since winning the Stanley Cup in 2004.
Stamkos has scored a NHL-leading 96 goals over the past two seasons and was rewarded with a US$37.5-million, five-year contract during the off-season.
Boucher has no doubt that Stamkos, entering his fourth season, is ready to assume a leadership role.
“I think going through the playoff experience last year, I learned a lot about myself, what it takes to win at this level,” Stamkos said.
Yzerman made a key move last New Year’s Day, acquiring goaltender Dwayne Roloson, who was instrumental in the team emerging as a contender, from the New York Islanders.
Roloson shut out Pittsburgh on the road in Game 7 of Tampa Bay’s opening-round series. He stopped 37-of-38 shots against the Bruins in the deciding contest of the Eastern finals.
Roloson returns this season and will share goalie duties with off-season acquisition Mathieu Garon.
“It is goaltending that has a lot of experience,” Boucher said. “Both goaltenders have seen a lot. Right now, on paper, we have goaltending that is supposed to be stable. Stable goaltending, that makes a difference.”
With Stamkos, St. Louis and captain Vincent Lecavalier leading the way, the Lightning figure to have a potent offence again.
St. Louis was second in the NHL with 99 points during the regular season last season. Stamkos ranked second with 45 regular-season goals and former 50-goal scorer Lecavalier rebounded after a couple of disappointing seasons to develop more of a well-rounded game.
“Obviously, you want to produce offensively,” Stamkos said. “But I want to be a good two-way player that can be counted on in all situations.”