TAMPA — You could see the frustration on Steven Stamkos' face, hear it in the heavy sigh.
Win or lose, the Lightning captain is usually one of the most accommodating and thoughtful players in his postgame interviews. But after Sunday's 3-1 loss to the Kings, Stamkos' answers were atypically terse.
Stamkos, who has just two goals in his past 10 games (both Nov. 21 against Anaheim), failed to muster a shot on goal Sunday, when he played 6 minutes, 25 seconds on the power play. He has two shots in the past three games, all while at right wing.
"It's frustrating," Stamkos said. "I don't think I got a shot on net. It's tough to score when you can't generate opportunities."
To be fair, generating offense is a problem for the whole team and, to a certain extent, the league. The Lightning has two goals or fewer in 16 of 27 games, one or fewer in 10. Stamkos hasn't been getting much help. Ryan Callahan has gone 14 games without a goal, Alex Killorn has two in his past 17 and Valtteri Filppula two in 28.
The fact that the touted Triplets line was broken up, with Ondrej Palat out the past four weeks and No. 2 center Tyler Johnson missing eight of the past 10 games, lets opponents give Stamkos more attention.
But pressure comes with the territory for Stamkos, one of the world's best scorers who is in a season-high six-game goal drought. His 11 goals still lead the team, but his 20 points are 50th in the NHL. The Lightning (13-12-3), despite winning five of its past eight, is still out of playoff position and needs more production from its best players, including Stamkos, starting Thursday against Ottawa.
"The thing about Stammer, and being with him for a few years, he'll go through stretches like this," coach Jon Cooper said. "And he'll go on a stretch the other way, he'll have eight (goals) in six games or something like that. Hopefully here we can start that streak on Thursday."
Much has been made of Cooper's relationship with Stamkos and how that might impact Stamkos' contract negotiations. The all-star is in the final year of his deal.
Some point out that Cooper's decision to move Stamkos, 25, from center to right wing the past four games coincidentally came the week Cooper's contract extension was announced. It's unfair to read too much into that, as talks on Cooper's extension began in the summer.
But Stamkos has made it clear he prefers to play his natural position, center; he believes it's easier to generate his trademark speed in the middle.
"Like I said, you come in and see what's on the board and you go out and do your job," Stamkos said. "That's pretty much as simple as that."
Stamkos said there's "not much" communication from Cooper about the position switch. But Cooper, who pointed out Stamkos' success in the playoffs on the wing, said he talks with all players on lineup changes.
"Everyone is on the same page," Cooper said. "Nobody walks into the room and said, 'Oh, look where I'm playing tonight.' That doesn't happen."
What happens with Stamkos' contract remains to be seen. The fact that the league projects a $3 million cap increase for next season can only help the Lightning. Stamkos insists the contract is not a distraction, nor is it impacting his play.
It's not like Stamkos' effort is lacking, and he's still making an impact. He tallied three assists in that six-game drought, including two in his first game at wing. For the first time, Stamkos has been a key contributor on the penalty kill, starting the past two games and making a huge sliding block in the final minute of Saturday's 4-3 win over San Jose. Stamkos said he'd love to play more on that unit.
But the reason Stamkos is a superstar, and why he'll get a huge contract either with the Lightning or in free agency, is because of how he takes shots, not blocks them.
This is not unfamiliar territory. Take away Stamkos' rookie year, and he has had nine goalless droughts of six or more games the past seven seasons. Four were in the 2010-11 season, when Stamkos still tallied 45 goals.
This season, Tampa Bay's power-play struggles have hurt Stamkos, as six of his 11 goals have come with the man advantage. It helps to put him with a playmaker. Near the end of Sunday's game, Stamkos was back at center with Jonathan Drouin, a strong set-up man who was dangerous all night, and Nikita Kucherov, second on the team with eight goals. That could provide a spark Thursday.
Having Johnson back, and playing better, would also help. Johnson, who had 29 goals as an All-Star last season, has just four goals in 22 games, including zero shots in his return Sunday.
"I need to play better," Johnson said. "My game has nothing to do with the injuries. It's just myself. I know what I need to do, I know what I can do. I just need to be a lot better."
He's not alone.
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.