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Goals mask Stamkos' completeness

TAMPA

He was always a star. Almost from the start, he had the lethal stick. He owned the net. He had the will of a great player, and the drive, and the passion.

These days, Steven Stamkos is better.

With all of his fireworks, however, you wonder if anyone will notice.

Before you respond, consider the image of Stamkos in front of the net. Thursday night's game was only 7 minutes, 37 seconds old, and the puck had just skittered free in the Edmonton end. Suddenly, Stamkos was there, because the puck always seems to find the great players, and as quick as a finger snap, Stamkos drove it home for his fifth goal in five games.

He could always score and, for a long time, that was all the world saw in him. From the time Barry Melrose was as wrong about Stamkos as any coach has ever been about a player, he has been an offensive force. He was a better skater than most realized, and he had great hands, and he had terrific vision. It was as if the puck turned into a grenade whenever it touched Stamkos' stick, and the explosion always happened in the back of the net.

The newest version of Stamkos has been improved, however. These days, he is a more complete player. He can still score (13 goals in 15 games), but at the ripe old age of 23, Stamkos has become a wiser player, more mature.

Before you ponder that, consider the blur that is Stamkos in the final minute of the first period. This time, he cut in front of Jordan Eberle and, as neatly as a pickpocket, took the puck as his own. He skated behind the goal, as if toying with the Oilers, then wrapped it in neatly. It was a cat-burglar's play, all anticipation and stealth, and the Lightning led 2-1.

Wouldn't you expect this? Great players in their early 20s tend to get better. They figure things out as they go, and the parts of hockey that didn't seem as important suddenly matter a great deal. They grow into their bodies, and they grow into their sport. They get it.

And so it is that Stamkos has spent this year challenging his own reputation. Yes, he is still the scorer from the highlights. These days, however, he is more. Honestly.

"He's playing the full 200 feet of the ice," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "He back-checks with a purpose. He understands that he doesn't need the extra step. He has that step in him. When he's on the offensive side of pucks, he's going to beat the guy anyway because of his speed. He doesn't need to cheat and be on the wrong side of a player.

"Coming into this year, if you were going to list the top 5-10 centers who are dependable on both ends of the rink, would you put Steven Stamkos' name in there? I don't know if you would have. Now? I think it's not in the top 10. I think you're talking about the top five who play both ends of the rink. He's for sure in that group."

For a long time, scoring was plenty when it came to Stamkos. Over his career, Stamkos has scored 408 points in 388 games.

For him, it hasn't been enough.

"When you first come in, there is a lot of pressure and expectations," Stamkos said. "You're known as a goal scorer. That's how you look at yourself, and that's how you want to play. But it doesn't necessarily turn into wins.

"I think I'm a better all-around player. It's not all about producing offensively. It's about playing the right way. I think this has been my most consistent year."

That says volumes about Stamkos. The world wants to praise him, and he wants to get better. This town has never had a better offensive performer than him, not on the Bucs, and not on the Rays, and not on the Lightning. And he wants to do more.

Ask Cooper the thing that makes Stamkos a great player, and he shrugs.

"It's his will," Cooper said. "He wants to be a great player. He's a competitive guy. He works on his skating. He works on his strength. He works on his shot. He has that p - - - and vinegar that boils inside him."

Given all of that, should it surprise anyone that Stamkos worked at being a better hockey player on both ends of the ice?

"What this league is about is results," Stamkos said. "It's about winning. If you're not doing the things to help your team win, you can't be satisfied with yourself. I just hate losing."

Oh, there is still room for growth. This year, for instance, he has won only 43 percent of his faceoffs. That isn't good enough.

"He will improve on it," general manager Steve Yzerman said. "I want Stammer out on the ice in the last minute of a game whether we're up by one or down by one. The ability to win faceoffs will make him even more valuable in those situations."

Oh, Stamkos is still an offensive player. When a guy can score the way he has, it's going to take a while before anyone thinks of him any other way. Stamkos is simply too good on offense for his other contributions to be fully appreciated.

"The one thing that sneaks up on people is how fast he is," Cooper said. "He has an unreal ability to make plays at high speed. He goes from 0 to 60 like a Ferrari. His first couple of steps I'd put up there with anyone in the league."

These days, Stamkos is more than that. And the Lightning is better off for it.

He's no longer just a hockey scorer. These days, he's a hockey player.

All he has to do is stop scoring long enough for people to notice.

Goals mask Stamkos' completeness 11/07/13 [Last modified: Friday, November 8, 2013 12:04am]

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