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Steven Stamkos and the Tampa Bay Lightning Aren't Done Yet

Tampa Bay was denied on its three-peat bid, but don’t turn out the lights on Steven Stamkos & Co. quite yet – the Lightning still have some Cup contending left in them.
Steven Stamkos

The fact he was even in a position to do it was remarkable.

Steven Stamkos, playing for his third consecutive Stanley Cup, would have been the first captain since New York Islanders’ Hall of Famer Denis Potvin to win at least three straight titles. Wayne Gretzky never did it, neither did Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman nor Sidney Crosby.

Stamkos and the Lightning fell short of their goal, losing the final in six games to Colorado. But during their run, Stamkos demonstrated why he’s one of the most underrated leaders in the game. 

“My first year, I played with Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St-Louis and our GM was Steve Yzerman,” said Ondrej Palat. “I knew them a little, but ‘Stammer’ is right up there.”

During Tampa Bay’s 2020 Cup run, Stamkos was unfortunately a bystander for most of the proceedings. He had missed the final quarter of the regular season and virtually all of the playoffs with a lower-body muscle/core injury, and, due to the pandemic-impacted schedule, that meant he was out of the game for about seven months. But he knew he had to make a contribution.

In Game 3 of the Cup final against Dallas, Stamkos took a Victor Hedman pass at the offensive blueline, squeezed by a Stars defender and ripped a shot past goalie Anton Khudobin for a 2-0 Tampa Bay lead. It was Stamkos’ third shift of the game and his first shot on net. It turned out to be his only action of the series, but it left an indelible mark on his teammates, who went on to beat Dallas in six games. 

Tampa Bay Lightning

“We were talking to him on off-days, and you could see the frustration that he would love to play with us, love to be on the bench,” Palat said. “He played that one game, and to see him score that goal, it was one of the best moments of my career. The way he helped out in that final was unbelievable.”

Defenseman Ryan McDonagh – who was traded to Nashville after last season's final – appreciated what Stamkos did for the team, even when the captain wasn’t healthy enough to make on-ice contributions, too. 

“The days in between games, talking to guys 1-on-1 or talking to the team as a whole, what’s great about ‘Stammer’ is that his knowledge of the game is so strong,” McDonagh said. “He’s got a great awareness of where the team is at, what a player might be going through and how he could help them, and he has a willingness to sacrifice and help anyone on the team.”

Two years later, Stamkos is sitting at a podium for media day at yet another Cup final. The room is festooned with giant banners, featuring legendary captains and leaders of previous champions – himself included. 

“I mean, you can just see the emotions on everyone’s faces,” Stamkos said. “That’s pretty special. My teeth look a lot better now, but...it’s surreal. You dream of winning the Cup, but being in the moment is amazing.”

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Stamkos’ attempt at a three-peat was how involved he was in all facets of the game. Sure, he was an offensive force, as usual, tying for third in Lightning playoff scoring with 19 points in 23 games – but it was everything else that made the Bolts such a tough out. Stamkos was physical, capable of showing a nasty side, and he brought some hound-like defensive tendencies against hot-shot Colorado weapons such as Nathan MacKinnon in the hard-fought series. 

“He’s been such an unbelievable leader for us,” said center Anthony Cirelli. “He does all the things the right way. When he’s blocking shots, finishing hits, winning his battles and doing all the little things right, it gets all the guys up. Even in the room, if there’s ever a time where something needs to be said, he’s stepping up to calm us down or get us going. ‘Stammer’ has been such a great leader for us on and off the ice.”

For a player who made his name as a wicked shooter and two-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner, it would’ve been easy for Stamkos to get his 35-plus goals a year and consider it a job well done. But once No. 91 got a taste for the Cup, he was going back for more. After largely playing spectator in 2020, Stamkos was back in full force for Tampa Bay’s five-game Cup victory over Montreal in 2021 and gunning for another title last year. 

“We haven’t rested on the past couple years,” he said. “It would’ve been really easy to do, right? You’ve had success, you’re down a couple games against a really good team in Toronto (in the first round), and you could’ve said, ‘OK, let’s get some rest, we’ve had a long couple years.’ But that’s not the makeup of this team. Having played as long as I have, you realized the potential this group had, and you don’t want to waste those opportunities. Some guys never even get a chance to play in the final. We realized how special this group is, and we’ve always talked about not wasting those opportunities.”

The road to perennial-contender status was a long one for Stamkos and the Lightning. After all, when Tampa Bay won the right to select him first overall out of OHL Sarnia at the 2008 draft, the Lightning as a franchise were in a ditch. Stamkos was the new hope, so much so that the organization famously put up “Seen Stamkos?” billboards around town to hype his arrival, even before the draft had taken place. Franchise legends Lecavalier and St-Louis – two of the engines for Tampa Bay’s first Cup win in 2004 – were still in town, but results were not coming the way they used to. The team finished last in the Southeast Division both before and after drafting Stamkos, and the youngster’s rookie year was initially held back by the coaching of Barry Melrose, who was fired after 16 games and never coached again.

As Stamkos grew, so did the Lightning as an organization. Jeff Vinik purchased the team in 2010, and from there, it was a matter of putting the right people in place to build around a nucleus of Stamkos, Hedman and eventually Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Brayden Point, among others. 

So how different is the culture now, versus when Stamkos arrived in Tampa Bay? 

“It’s night and day,” he said. “I certainly didn’t know what to expect coming in as an 18-year-old, and it was pretty crazy the first couple years. Mr. Vinik came in and just solidified the franchise. You bring in Steve Yzerman and (CEO) Tod Leiweke and some amazing parts that brought that instant respect to the organization. Then, obviously you’ve seen what the organization has been built into and what we do in the community following in the footsteps of Mr. Vinik and his family, it’s amazing.

“For the people who haven’t had a chance to come down to Tampa, you really should because it’s probably one of the best places you can come watch a hockey game. The on-ice success helps that, but the culture we’ve built, it’s not just how you play on the ice, it’s who you are as a person and how you fit in the group and the community. The trade-deadline guys and free agents we brought in the past couple years are great players, but they also fit in the mold of what we want as players and people. That’s why we’ve had so much success.”

Victor Hedman and Steven Stamkos

Being able to keep the crew together has played a big role. Much has been made of the “hometown discounts” players such as Stamkos and Hedman have taken over the years in order to make sure there’s still cap space for the supporting cast, and even then, GM Julien BriseBois has been forced to make some daring moves to keep the party going.

Stamkos did entertain the open market back in 2016 when he was poised to become an unrestricted free agent, then ultimately decided to come back to the Lightning on an eight-year deal with an annual cap hit of $8.5 million. Not surprisingly, Hedman signed his own eight-year extension just two days later, with a cap hit of $7.87 million. 

“We were definitely talking about it,” Stamkos said. “As soon as I knew I was signing, we talked and he said, ‘OK, I’m getting mine done, too.’ It feels like forever ago, but obviously a decision that has worked out for both of us. ‘Heddy’ and I have seen this through, so let’s keep going.”

The two have been cornerstones of the team for more than a decade, with Hedman drafted second overall in 2009, one year after Stamkos. 

“We’re the best of friends, and now we’re both married with kids,” Stamkos said. “It’s pretty crazy, we came in as such young guys, wide-eyed and not knowing what to expect. We had some early success going to the conference final, and then some heartaches and tough times. We’ve gone through it all together, and that’s what you want as a player, to be there when it starts and to see it come full circle and win a championship. We’ve certainly built something amazing in Tampa, and it’s been great to do it with him.”

Hedman has won a Norris Trophy, finished as a finalist five other times and taken home the Conn Smythe Trophy from Tampa Bay’s 2020 Cup win, while Stamkos amazingly just put up his best offensive season at 32 with 106 points. “He’s my best friend, and we’ve grown up together,” Hedman said. “We’ve been here for a very long time, and he’s been through the ups and downs with me.”

So it’s fair to say that Stamkos has had the exact impact – and then some – on the Lightning that the organization hoped he would way back in 2008. What’s most exciting is that he and his cohorts clearly are not finished yet. Think about it: Tampa Bay pushed a high-octane Colorado outfit to six games and did so basically without Brayden Point, who tore his quad muscle in the first round against Toronto and only suited up for two games in the final. 

Vasilevskiy, Kucherov, Cirelli, Stamkos and Hedman will all still be excellent contributors this season, and the fact the Avalanche denied the Bolts a three-peat will not sit well with a group that has been accustomed to winning. 

“We embraced the challenge after the first one about winning back to back, and you think positive thoughts that go into creating some amazing memories that we’ve had the past couple of years,” Stamkos said. “I’ve talked about that feeling you have when you win it. It’s the best feeling you can ever have as an athlete, and it motivates you even more.”

And while BriseBois was forced to trade McDonagh as he attempts to keep the Bolts cap-compliant heading into 2022-23, the mission is clear for all involved: continue to reign over the Eastern Conference and be that bogeyman team that no opponent wants to face in a seven-game series.

New Philadelphia Flyers coach John Tortorella, who was helming the Columbus Blue Jackets when they swept a shocked Tampa Bay team in the first round of 2019, recently joked that he and his Jackets “created a monster” when they humiliated the Lightning that year. Between that miss and the loss to Colorado, Tampa Bay didn’t lose a single playoff series. 

“Look at how that team played versus how our team plays now,” Stamkos said. “There are a lot of differences. There’s a lot more sacrifice. A lot of guys had career years and statistics and this and that, but our ultimate goal is to win. The egos are checked at the door for sure, and that takes a while sometimes. Guys have realized that, and now it’s all about winning.”

This feature first appeared in The Hockey News 2022-23 Yearbook with more exclusive features and inside scoops on the NHL – available at THN.com/free.

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