OTTAWA – The Tampa Bay Lightning don’t need Steve Stamkos to be the Michael Jordan of hockey.
That was the label former owner Art Williams famously placed on Vincent Lecavalier after the Lightning drafted him first overall in 1998. The comment followed Lecavalier early in a career that got off to a bit of a slow start. There won’t be that same level of expectation placed on Stamkos, who was selected by Tampa Bay with the first pick at the NHL draft on Friday night.
He’s walking into a much different situation than Lecavalier did 10 years ago.
“For a franchise that had never won a playoff series, had been to the playoffs once in its existence, never won a division title and had never even dreamed of winning a Stanley Cup – in my mind, that’s incredible pressure (that Lecavalier faced),” said Lightning GM Jay Feaster. “Here we don’t have that.
“We’re not asking him to come in and save the franchise.”
Stamkos is a gifted centre that has been the consensus No. 1 choice all season.
He was thrilled to hear his name called by new Tampa owner Oren Koules at Scotiabank Place. The 18-year-old smiled wide after putting on a black Lightning jersey for the first time.
“My goal coming into this season was to get as drafted as high as possible,” said Stamkos. “I accomplished my goal.
“I think I’m a guy who works very hard and if I want something bad enough, I’m going to do anything possible to get it.”
Stamkos scored 58 goals in 61 games for the Sarnia Sting this season and finished with 105 points. He’s likely played his final Ontario Hockey League game as he’s expected to make the jump to the NHL as an 18-year-old next season.
Scouts believe his speed and competitiveness will one day help him develop into an elite player.
“I think his potential is that he can be a legitimate star player in the National Hockey League,” said Feaster. “That’s not what we expect right off the bat but I think when you look 10 years down the road, I think he’s going to be really special.”
The native of Markham, Ont., is the first Canadian to be selected first overall since Sidney Crosby in 2005.
He was one of 17 Canucks taken in the opening 30 picks, which is one more than last year. There were six Americans selected along with three Swedes, two Russians, a Dane and a Swiss.
Everyone expected Stamkos to go first but there was some uncertainty about who would be taken behind him. It ended up being Guelph Storm defenceman Drew Doughty but the Los Angeles Kings made him sweat a little first.
Doughty grew up cheering for Los Angeles and badly wanted to be picked by that team. Just before it happened, he saw Kings GM Dean Lombardi shaking hands with Calgary GM Darryl Sutter and was worried that they had given up the pick.
“I was just like, ‘Oh no,”‘ said Doughty. “I was a little worried.”
Turns out those GMs were completing the details of a trade that sent Mike Cammalleri from Los Angeles to Calgary, one of several deals completed on draft night.
That allowed Doughty’s wish to come true. The Kings jersey he was given by Lombardi is the fourth he now owns – although it’s the first with the current logo.
“I really have wanted this since I was a little kid,” said Doughty.
Peterborough Petes defenceman Zach Bogosian was selected third by the Atlanta Thrashers while the St. Louis Blues took Niagara Ice Dogs defenceman Alex Pietrangelo at No. 4. The Toronto Maple Leafs traded up to the No. 5 position to grab Kelowna Rockets defenceman Luke Schenn.
This draft was heavy with high end blue-liners and the Leafs didn’t want to miss out on landing one of them.
“The top four defencemen are all special and we knew we had to act,” said Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher.
They were the first Canadian team to step to the podium.
The Vancouver Canucks were next up at No. 10 and selected Brampton Battalion forward Cody Hodgson. Ottawa traded up to the 15th spot and had captain Daniel Alfredsson select fellow Swede Erik Karlsson, much to the delight of a boisterous home crowd.
The Edmonton Oilers used the 22nd pick to select Regina Pats centre Jordan Eberle, who had 42 goals in the Western Hockey League last season. The Calgary Flames got centre Greg Nemisz of the Windsor Spitfires with the 25th pick.
Players drafted this year are eligible to earn a yearly salary of up to US$875,000, plus a maximum of $2.85 million in performances bonuses, when they sign their three-year, entry-level contracts. First-rounders are usually the only ones who get that kind of money.
Lecavalier has been the cornerstone of the Tampa franchise since he was drafted. He helped deliver a Stanley Cup in 2004 and has developed into one of the best players in the NHL.
The team is going to have quite a one-two punch up the middle now and the Lightning are clearly excited about it – the team set up a website in honour of Stamkos before picking him and have already put his image on billboards in Florida.
He can’t wait to be part of it.
“I just had that (sense of) relief,” said Stamkos. “There’s been a lot of talk of Tampa taking me.
“To finally say that I’m a part of the Tampa Bay organization is a dream come true for me. I couldn’t be happier.”
Stamkos is a mature young man who has drawn comparisons to Steve Yzerman.
There’s bound to be some pressure on him after being selected first overall but he’ll be able to lean on one of his new teammates for advise on handling it.
“He does have a young man that’s gone through it,” said Feaster. “Been there, done that. That’s something that Vincent Lecavalier is very mindful of what he went through. He knows what it was like.
“I know that he’s going to help him.”