Sunday, June 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning's Stamkos continues work to improve his game

Ask Steven Stamkos what it means to be a complete player and the Lightning center talks about someone "who can be trusted in all situations."

It was telling, then, that at the end of Tuesday's morning skate in Buffalo, Stamkos worked on faceoffs with fellow center Tyler Johnson. Monday it was with center Valtteri Filppula.

"It's about being willing to learn and pick up a few things," Stamkos said.

With his bona fides as one of the league's top goal scorers well established, Stamkos, 23, has turned his attention to developing elements of his game that won't get nearly the acclaim but that he knows are just as important to taking the next step in his development.

It's still a big deal to score goals, and Stamkos' 185 since the start of the 2009-10 season are the league's most.

But winning more faceoffs, being more often in the right place defensively, taking better care of the puck have to be part of the equation.

"It's the (penalty kill) and being out there when you're up a goal late in the game, not being a liability defensively, playing solid at both ends of the rink," Stamkos said. "That's the player I want to be."

Those thoughts are not new to Stamkos. But winning his second goal-scoring title in 2011-12 and finishing second in points last season without making the playoffs in either season sharpened the process.

Add a disturbing 33.3 percent winning percentage on faceoffs in this season's first three games and coach Jon Cooper's demand everyone play better in the defensive zone, and you get this:

"It's nice to have scoring titles and goals and stuff," Stamkos said. "But you want to be in the playoffs. You want to win."

"He wants to be the best," said former NHL defenseman Brian Engblom, an analyst for NBC Sports Network. "And if you want to be the best, you have to work at all the things you're not quite up to par on."

•••

Faceoffs are tricky. The obvious battle is one-on-one between the players at the circle. But more faceoffs are won by teammates gathering loose pucks than with clean wins off the draw. At worst, a faceoff man must create a puck battle so others can swoop in.

Stamkos acknowledges his faceoff numbers are rough. In five previous seasons he never has won 50 percent, a number considered acceptable but not great for a center. Last season's 49.6 percent was his best.

"As a centerman, you want to be a good faceoff guy," Stamkos said. "I'm going to stick with the things that worked for me last year and things you can learn from a guy like Filppula and hope they come to good use."

"The most important thing is to talk about it," Filppula said. "There are a lot of ways to take faceoffs, so it's tough to say one or two things you do. You need a little luck, too."

And experience. In Tampa Bay's first two games, Stamkos faced two of the league's best at faceoffs in Boston's Patrice Bergeron and Chicago's Jonathan Toews, and in three games this season he has won just 18 of 54 draws.

"Now he knows what he's up against and the guys he really has to be careful of," Engblom said. "It's the same thing defensively — if he's playing (Sidney) Crosby or (Ryan) Getzlaf, (knowing) what they do so well and where you have to be in order to prevent that."

•••

Simply put, defense is will over skill: hustling to back check, battling for pucks, playing the body.

Stamkos, 6 feet 1, 194 pounds, has done more of each this season, and a couple of jarring open-ice hits during the preseason were, for Cooper, a good indication of a transition.

"He skates like a gazelle. He has a rocket for a shot. He's got exceptional stick skills. Usually that doesn't translate into a guy who can play a physical game," Cooper said. "So it was impressive to see a guy of his stature, how strong he was on his skates and that he really could win those physical battles."

"I feel I'm slowly getting there," said Stamkos, who was minus-4 last season despite 57 points, second in the league, and 29 goals. "It's not going to happen overnight, but I'm at a point where it's the best it's been in my career. It's mentally, too, coming into games not only thinking offense. You're not cheating as much because you want to be in the right position and be trusted."

Cooper has trusted Stamkos on the penalty kill this season, something previous coach Guy Boucher did not do, and Stamkos is grateful for the chance.

"You can say you want to be that player, but if you're not getting the opportunity to go out there and penalty kill or go out there in the last minute of games, you're never going to get there," he said. "It's nice having a coach who has that confidence in you."

"He's been accustomed to a certain way of playing for a lot of his career, and he's excelled at that," Cooper said. "It wasn't he was poor at the defensive aspects, he's just more aware now of the defensive zone. He's becoming more responsible. It's great to see at such a young age."

PYATT UPDATE: Expect wing Tom Pyatt, who broke a collarbone Tuesday at Buffalo, to be out until at least Thanksgiving, Cooper said.

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