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Lightning rookie Stamkos excited for home opener

Steven Stamkos, going against the Rangers on Sunday, has 23:18 of regular-season ice time.

SCOTT AUDETTE | Special to the Times

Steven Stamkos, going against the Rangers on Sunday, has 23:18 of regular-season ice time.

TAMPA — Steven Stamkos stayed after Lightning practice the other day to shoot a commercial.

This one was for Nike Canada, based on the premise the 18-year-old will one day exceed the accomplishments that made him the NHL's top draft pick last summer.

The expectations are as high as those "Seen Stamkos?" billboards once planted along area highways.

Tonight, the portion of the Tampa Bay area not transfixed on playoff baseball will focus on the Lightning's future skating on home ice for the first time in a real NHL game.

Tampa Bay, meet Steven Stamkos. And vice versa.

"That's what every kid dreams of growing up, playing in that first game," Stamkos said. "It was a little weird playing over in Prague for the first game. We're in North America now, our home opener. I'm excited."

Lightning fans already have caught a glimpse of what the 6-foot-1, 196-pound center from Markham, Ontario, can do on the NHL level. He played in two preseason games here, and in the two televised season-opening losses to the Rangers in the Czech Republic.

When he signed a three-year rookie deal in July worth a possible $11.175-million, expectations grew.

He had 23 minutes, 18 seconds of ice time in the first two regular-season games, with more time in the second game than the first. He has three shots, including a breakaway attempt, and was whistled for a two-minute penalty at the end of the second game, a 2-1 loss. That hooking call left Tampa Bay short-handed for the final 59.7 seconds and ended any realistic chance it had of sending the game into overtime.

No one was dwelling on the mistake this week.

"He had great opportunities," captain Vinny Lecavalier said. "He could have had two or three goals by now. He just has to keep plugging away, and he's just going to get better every game. I think everyone's happy with the way he's playing. He's a great player, and he'll be great for a long time."

Stamkos at times has looked confident with the puck and shows an ability to create. He has been muscled around a bit by opponents and teammates, but he has shown an ability to fight through physical play.

"He's got to get more aggressive, and he mentioned it, 'I'm giving these guys too much respect,' and he is," coach Barry Melrose said. "He can skate with anybody in the world. That's what he has to get to, to want to make plays and fly."

Throughout practice this week, Stamkos could be seen racing to pucks. During breaks, he asked veterans for pointers.

It's been 10 years since Lecavalier wore rookie skates as the Lightning's No. 1 draft pick at age 18. "I think he's doing pretty well," Lecavalier said of Stamkos. "He's been with the guys for two or three weeks now, and he's fitting in very well. … When I was 18, guys took care of me, and we're doing the same thing. He's a good kid."

Melrose said Stamkos is very coachable and eager to learn and improve. He spends lots of time with veterans such as Gary Roberts and Mark Recchi, who have become mentors on the pitfalls of NHL stardom.

"Gary's talking about how to be a pro, what to do, how to practice properly, how to eat properly, how to work out properly, things like that," Melrose said. "So (Stamkos is) getting a lot of help from the older players."

Asked to compare his new weapon with others in the league, Melrose stumbled through a few thoughts, then deferred to the rookie. Stamkos said he doesn't deserve such comparisons being so new.

Some have said he is similar to Joe Sakic or Steve Yzerman. Sakic wears No. 19, as did the retired Yzerman, and that was Stamkos' number before he flipped it to No. 91 in the Ontario Hockey League because 19 was taken.

Melrose thinks of Stamkos as a throwback and fans should expect as much.

"Think about a centerman that can fly," he said. "All the guys he reminds me of are older. He's quick through the zone, he's got great acceleration, and he's got a rocket of a shot."

Stamkos is eager for his home debut. His parents and sister missed an intended trip to Prague to see his first game, but he expects them in Tampa tonight.

In the locker room, Stamkos has earned good reviews from coaches and teammates. If that's an indication of his future here, Stamkos should be every bit as good as advertised.

"When you talk to him, he's a very mature kid," wing Marty St. Louis said. "He understands what it takes to be successful. You still have a lot to learn at that age, but I think he's making strides every day. … You just have to remind him to keep it simple, do the things that brought him here and play with that confidence."

Times staff writer Damian Cristodero contributed to this report. Izzy Gould can be reached at izzygould@me.com or (727) 580-5315.

Lightning rookie Stamkos excited for home opener 10/10/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 13, 2008 1:49pm]
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