When it comes to the All-Star Game, Steven Stamkos said he still feels like a little kid.
The Lightning center — Tampa Bay's only player in today's game at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa — said he will be star-struck hanging around "(players) I grew up watching and still watch today."
"When they say complimentary stuff to you, it's kind of weird," he said. "You never see yourself as one of the top players in the league."
Stamkos, in his second straight All-Star Game, is that, with a league-best 32 goals and on his way to a second Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL's top goal-scorer.
Just as noteworthy, though, and under the radar, has been his evolution into a star under his own power.
No longer under the wings of veterans such as Vinny Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis, Stamkos, who turns 22 on Feb. 7, is setting his own pace as a player and own agenda as a team leader.
He is a strong voice in the locker room, Lecavalier said. And on the ice, where for so long he was tied to St. Louis, Stamkos is producing on his own.
No longer a fixture on Stamkos' line, St. Louis has assisted on only nine Stamkos goals. Part of that is a result of Tampa Bay's abysmal power play. But Stamkos compensates with a league-best 26 even-strength goals.
"It's important for any competitor to feel he has control over his game," coach Guy Boucher said. "Whether he's linked to Marty or Vinny or anyone who has been here before, deep down every player wants to be his own man."
"You like to know," Stamkos said, "that you can be a player who can go out there and want the puck and make plays."
There were doubts last season. Stamkos disappeared with five goals in his final 28 regular-season games.
The retooling began during the playoffs as Stamkos learned to rely less on his one-timer from the left faceoff circle that teams had all but taken away. He also paid more attention to defense.
Stamkos now is a threat to score from anywhere on the ice, particularly from in front of the net. He is good enough defensively that Boucher occasionally uses him on the penalty kill, and his average 21:15 of ice time is a career high and fifth among league centers.
But it wasn't until this season's goal numbers exploded that the improvements were noted.
"He's proved to people he can play with whoever and still produce," St. Louis said.
"I think I just matured as a player and a person," Stamkos said and added about last season, "Those are times when you mature, going through experiences like that. You learn the little tricks of the trade that make the veteran guys so successful."
Still, despite endorsement deals with Nike, Bauer, Tissot watches, Royal Bank of Canada and Garnier Fructis hair products, for which he grew his locks, Stamkos apparently can't wrap his mind around his star status.
"I don't really see myself as the guy who is leading the league in goals," he said.
How do his teammates see Stamkos? Said Lecavalier: "He's definitely his own man."
THRILL FOR THILL: Lightning equipment manager Ray Thill will be behind one of the benches today. It is his first All-Star Game in 11 years with Tampa Bay.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]