BRANDON — Seen Stamkos?
The catchphrase was all over the Tampa Bay area during the summer as the Lightning promoted No. 1 overall draft pick Steven Stamkos on billboards, T-shirts and a Web site.
All of a sudden, though, it is a legitimate question.
Three games into the season, the second-line center whom the club hopes is the future face of the franchise, is averaging just 9 minutes, 47 seconds of ice time (41st among rookies entering Tuesday), has just three shots on goal and zero points.
Against the Hurricanes on Saturday, Stamkos played just 6:05.
Part of that was the time Tampa Bay devoted to dealing with nine shorthanded situations, an aspect of the game in which Stamkos does not yet participate.
Still, Stamkos, 18, praised for his NHL-quality shot, ice smarts and skating ability, is getting more splinters than experience.
Seen Stamkos? Check the bench.
"It's obviously tough," he said after a workout at the Ice Sports Forum. "You look at some of the other players in the league coming in, and you have close buddies who may be getting an opportunity to play. For me it's a learning process. It's only three games into the season and people are starting to speculate and make observations. But it's an 82-game season for a reason."
"It's not frustrated," Stamkos added. "I get frustrated the team is not doing as well as we hoped. There's still plenty of hockey left, and as the season progresses, hopefully, I can keep working hard and prove I can perform at an elite level in this league."
Coach Barry Melrose said he empathizes with his young star and took some of the blame.
"It's got to be a conscious effort on my part," he said about getting Stamkos more ice time. "You want to get him in the lineup. You want to put him in situations where he will succeed. We have to get him more than six minutes."
Melrose said 12 to 15 would be best.
It starts with Tampa Bay staying out of the penalty box so Melrose can roll lines. Melrose said if the flow of the game is right, he would consider double-shifting Stamkos and linemates Vinny Prospal and Radim Vrbata.
Getting Stamkos on the power play is another option. He has shown the ability to carry the puck and create, and he has a sizzling shot. He also has been terrific on faceoffs, winning 12 of 18.
But other than 3:39 of power-play time, 3:15 of which came in Game 2, Stamkos has been off that unit except in practice.
"That is definitely an area we want to get Steven incorporated into our play more," Melrose said.
So, Stamkos waits for a chance to show what he can do.
"The guys just tell him to keep his head up," left wing Mark Recchi said. "He's a good kid. He understands it. It would be easy for him to get down, but he's very positive and you don't see that at all. It's obvious he wants to play. Any elite player wants to play. But he's handled it very well."
"I'm 18 years old coming into the NHL, so I don't expect to play 20, 25 minutes every game," Stamkos said. "But as a player, you want to be in there and contribute."
And be seen.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]