ESTERO — On their face, the 17 pounds Steven Stamkos added since his rookie season don't seem like all that much.
But as Stamkos said, "It's all muscle."
It was a line thrown out for a laugh more than anything.
It came, though, as part of a serious conversation about how important strength is to an athlete's success and how muscling up helped the Lightning's star center transform from a skinny but gifted 18-year-old rookie into a player who can impose his will on a game.
"I'm definitely night and day from where I was when I was 18," said Stamkos, 22, now a well-built though still lean 6 feet 1, 192 pounds. "I've always had confidence in my skill set, but physically, I have confidence now, too."
It showed last season, when Stamkos became just the 20th NHL player with 60 goals. Most came not from the faceoff circle — where his signature one-timer made him a shooting star — but from close to the net, where you must battle to claim your ice.
The feat was so prodigious, the Twitterverse is wondering if Stamkos might score 50 goals in the lockout-shortened 48-game season that begins Saturday at home against the Capitals.
"It's flattering people think that," Stamkos said at Germain Arena, where on Thursday the team ended four days of practice. "But I'm more a realist."
That said, "I want to score every game," he added. "It's something I know is probably not going to happen, but I want to be the guy they can count on every game and contribute. And we'll see what happens."
Some of Stamkos' physical gains are simple maturing. But four summers training with former Lightning teammate Gary Roberts amplified the transformation.
"It's just confidence in your physical ability that you expect to win battles when you go into the corner. You expect to come out with the puck," Stamkos said. "In front of the net, that's another confidence-builder; to be willing to go to those areas and be able to hang in there with some big defensemen in the league."
Particularly after teams began limiting the shooting lane for his one-timer.
"We forget he's such a young player," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. "To do what he's done in so little time is impressive, but it's because of his attitude he has and his relentlessness to learn and get better. He looks really strong on the ice."
Next for Stamkos is to win more faceoffs. Fifty percent is the minimum acceptable standard for a center, and he won just 45.5 percent last season.
Added strength should help, though success in the circle also is about timing, positioning and knowing opponent tendencies.
Not that Boucher is worried.
"He's a great chaser," he said of Stamkos.
And the main prey still is goals. But 50 in 48 games?
"The sky's the limit," teammate Vinny Lecavalier said. "But the most important thing is his standards. He wants to be better every year. No matter how that transpires, it's going to make us a better team. He's not a guy who is satisfied with what he has."
Or how strong he is.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]