For months, he was the finest player in the NHL. He was young, and he was explosive, and in the world of the Tampa Bay Lightning, he was the guy who turned on the lights.
These days, there is one thing his team would ask of Steven Stamkos.
For four months, he scored as if he was shooting into a soccer goal. He was fast, he was accurate, and if you were handing out MVP awards, his name was the one to put on the trophy.
These days, there is only one thing his fans would ask of Steven Stamkos.
Resume, won't you?
Suddenly, his stick is invisible, and his touch has betrayed him, and the posts no longer seem to love him. In the most important games of his career, Stamkos has entered his deepest funk. And all that rests on Stamkos becoming Stamkos again is, well, everything.
Everything, such as a scoring title.
Everything, such as an MVP award.
Everything, such as leading his team through the stretch run and into the playoffs.
For 11 games, including Saturday night's 4-2 loss to Montreal, it has been as if Stamkos has been skating uphill. He has only one goal, an alarming slump for a scorer so gifted. He has suffered from overthinking, and from undershooting, and between the two his game seems to be out of balance.
Granted, he is only a month past his 21st birthday, and granted, the goals get more precious down the stretch, and granted, he is in his first playoff run and granted, slumps happen to all scorers.
On the other hand, one of the truisms of hockey is that in the biggest games, a team needs its best players to be its best players. In other words, as soon as Stamkos can be special again is fine by the Lightning. By Stamkos, too.
"You want to be that player to help your team," Stamkos said Saturday. "You expect it out of yourself, and your teammates expect it out of you. You want to be counted on when things are on the line. It's something I take on myself to come out and help this team win. It isn't easy, but you want to be one of those players who can make a difference."
A month ago, Stamkos was the biggest difference-maker on the team, and there didn't seem to be a player in the league who could take the Hart Trophy (league MVP) out of his hands. Even with the slump, Stamkos' 41 still leads all goal-scorers by eight, and he's third in game-winning goals, and he has been largely responsible for the impressive turnaround of a franchise that suddenly matters again.
The most important stat with Stamkos, however, might be this one: When he scores a goal, the Lightning is 23-6-2. When he does not, the team is 13-15-5. Is there another player whose performance has that kind of impact on his team?
For Stamkos, the final stretch is a chance to close all MVP arguments (and, to be honest, there are those who argue that Marty St. Louis, Stamkos' teammate, deserves a spot in the conversation). The closer he can get to 50 goals, the harder it is going to be to argue for anyone else. And let's face it: The more MVP-type things that Stamkos can accomplish, the better it is for the Lightning.
Consider this: Back in 2003-04, when St. Louis won the Hart, he had seven goals in his final 17 games. Of course, St. Louis had some help. Vinny Lecavalier, Dave Andreychuk and Fredrik Modin all had seven, too. No one is suggesting that other players don't have to play well, too.
Mention how much the Lightning needs Stamkos down the stretch to coach Guy Boucher, and he shrugs. When hasn't the Lightning needed Stamkos? Mention the MVP award, and Boucher makes a face and says he really doesn't care.
"I'm trying to take pressure off of Stamkos, not add to it," Boucher says. "People want to talk about MVP, about scoring titles. I want him to strip that away and just get back to what he does."
Fair enough. But the pressure is the price of being a great player, and measuring up is the proof. Who else should the Lightning look to in its most important stretch in years?
Given what you can remember of Stamkos, back when he was Stamkos, who else would you ask to lead the way?