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Tampa Bay Lightning taking long-term view with Steven Stamkos

TORONTO - Steven Stamkos doesn't have to win the rookie of the year award for the Tampa Bay Lightning to consider his season a success. In fact, he doesn't even necessarily have to come close.

The No. 1 draft pick may have entered the NHL with extremely high expectations from fans and media, but his new bosses have a different set of goals for him than those on the outside.

That's why there are no serious alarm bells going off in the Lightning's front office even though it took Stamkos eight games to get his first NHL point - an assist in Tuesday's 3-2 victory over Toronto.

"He can score 20 points this year or 80, neither guarantees anything," said GM Brian Lawton. "It's the long-term plan for his development that we're worried about."

The team revamped its dressing room over the summer and now boasts one of the best workout facilities in the league. Lawton cited the teenager's physical strength as something that will improve as time goes on.

It certainly helps that Lawton has first-hand experience with being a No. 1 overall pick who experienced some struggles. He remembers dressing for a couple games in his first year with the Minnesota North Stars and not even getting on the ice for a shift.

That's something he's intent on not having his prized rookie experience.

Stamkos saw just six minutes five seconds of ice time during Tampa's home opener earlier this month but coach Barry Melrose has given him more than that in each game since. He plans to keep it up too.

"We know if he gets one (goal), he's going to take off," said Melrose. "He's playing good. That's what people can't understand, they think if he's not scoring he must be playing terrible. Well that's not the case at all."

Despite the slow start, the 18-year-old has showed few signs of someone who is concerned or shaken. In fact, his Lightning teammates are only used to seeing Stamkos with one expression on his face - a smile.

Spending time around the rookie has reminded captain Vincent Lecavalier of how he felt as a teenager during his first year in the NHL.

"It's like an exciting day every time you wake up," said Lecavalier. "It's like Christmas almost."

He's another player that will be able to mentor Stamkos as the season goes along.

Lecavalier was called the "Michael Jordan of hockey" by former Lightning owner Art Williams after being taken first overall in 1998 and had trouble living up to that moniker while scoring 13 goals and 28 points in his rookie season.

So far, he hasn't really seen any need to have a long chat with Stamkos about that experience.

"He always comes in with a smile, that's they type of guy he is," said Lecavalier. "I'm not worried about him. If he was coming in with his head down, we could have these big talks.

"He's always in a good mood, always upbeat and always working hard. So he's doing all the right things."

Stamkos couldn't have been much more excited than to have a chance to play at the Air Canada Centre. He was raised in the Toronto suburb of Markham and said that Tuesday's game was the first time in his entire life that he hasn't cheered for the Maple Leafs.

More than 50 friends and family had tickets but the rookie had even bigger concerns than entertaining. Even with the victory, Tampa is among the bottom-dwellers in the Eastern Conference with a 2-3-3 record.

"It's been tough," said Stamkos. "Obviously, I didn't expect it was going to be easy coming in, but I didn't expect to not have a great start as a team and myself. But you just have to stay positive, it's quite a jump (to the NHL)."

Lawton doesn't have to look far to prove his theory that the youngster's final point tally this season won't necessarily be an indicator of what's to come.

He had 31 points as a rookie with the North Stars in 1983-84 and never put up more than 44 any season after.

Meanwhile, Lecavalier has since had years with 108 and 92 after his tough freshman campaign. Plus, he's still in the prime of his career.

No matter how Stamkos's first season ends up going, Lawton is certain he has the skills to become an impact player in the NHL.

"He's just got such maturity for a guy his age," said Lawton. "I know he'll be fine."



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