The Steven Stamkos who takes to the ice for the Tampa Bay Lightning next season will be drastically different than the rookie who struggled out of the gate this year.
While expectations on the NHL’s top draft pick are always high, fate conspired against the slick center early on. Everyone’s pre-season pick to win the Calder Trophy was quickly eclipsed by a series of young stars including, in order, Derick Brassard, Kris Versteeg and Steve Mason. While Brassard was lighting it up in Columbus, Stamkos was sometimes seeing less than 10 minutes of ice time per game.
But with a new coach who actually gives Stamkos ice time and a silver medal from the World Championship in Switzerland, ‘Stammer’ has all the confidence he needs to achieve at a high level in 2009-10.
After going pointless in his first eight games, Stamkos ended his first NHL season with 19 points in his last 20 contests and 46 points overall. Being on that kind of run was a great momentum-builder for the youngster, who was then selected to represent Canada at the worlds in Bern.
Playing on a line with fellow Bolt Martin St-Louis – with whom Stamkos had great chemistry at the end of the NHL year – the 19-year-old busted out, tying for fifth in tournament scoring with 11 points in nine games and being named a World Championship all-star alongside St-Louis (who led all scorers with 15 points). Canada lost 2-1 to Russia in the final, but Stamkos was golden on a personal level.
“I thought we really deserved to win that tournament,” Stamkos said. “But for me being a young guy and Luke (Schenn) and Drew Doughty, it was a great experience, getting to know the players, getting to know the coaching staff and really being able to prove we can play at that level.”
Having the trust of coach Lindy Ruff and his staff certainly helped matters. Stamkos was given top-flight linemates right off the bat and the encouragement to work his offensive magic.
“I’d be happy going over there filling any role,” Stamkos said. “The first practice, the line combinations had me with Marty and Shane Doan, so I was obviously pretty excited about that. You know you’re going to be expected to put up some offensive numbers when you’re playing with those two guys.”
The breakout wasn’t just observed by the all-star team-voting media, however. Maple Leafs defenseman Luke Schenn was also part of Canada’s squad at the tourney and saw the full Stamkos arsenal in effect.
“For Steven, he had an unbelievable tournament,” Schenn said. “He had great chemistry with his linemates right from the start, he scored a lot of goals, put up points for us – he really showed why he’s going to be such a star in this league and why he was the No. 1 pick.”
But the genesis of the turnaround clearly came under the stewardship of now-permanent Tampa coach Rick Tocchet, who replaced the embarrassing Barry Melrose after just 16 games.
“I was given the opportunity to play a lot in the second half; play big minutes and play in all situations,” Stamkos noted. “When (Tocchet) took over, I think he knew the ability I had and was willing to give me a chance and that’s all you can ask for.
“Knowing your coach has confidence in you is big for a young player.”
And with Tocchet returning for a full season of Bolts action, Stamkos can vault himself back up the list of young stars taking the NHL by storm.
Steven Stamkos on the World Championship and his rookie season.
PRODUCER: Ted Cooper
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Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his features, The Hot List and Prep Watch appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.
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