BRANDON — Rick Tocchet said Saturday, after his first practice as interim Lightning coach, that top pick Steven Stamkos was going to "get his chance."
It didn't take long for Tocchet to back up his talk. One day after Stamkos played a season-high 15 minutes, 10 seconds in Carolina, the rookie was placed at right wing on a line with Marty St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier at Monday's practice.
Although Tocchet said the move is not "set in stone," Stamkos could spend some shifts in tonight's game against the Panthers next to the faces of the franchise.
"Playing with those two guys is definitely a great honor — they're two of the best players in the game," Stamkos said. "Obviously this is an opportunity I have to take advantage of. … The pressure is on me to perform when given that ice time. It's definitely a big step for me."
Tocchet said the move could be a confidence builder for Stamkos, who has gone eight games without a point since his two-goal night in Buffalo on Oct. 30. Stamkos, 18, said it might be a little "intimidating" at first to play with St. Louis and Lecavalier, but his teammates say it's just a matter of time before he breaks through.
"He's trying to find his way; he's a very talented kid," St. Louis said. "It took him a while to get on the scoreboard, but once he did, you know you could see his play take off and his confidence level. Once he gets his confidence level up to where it can be where it's been his whole life, you're going to see a lot of good things."
Stamkos saw his ice time fluctuate from nine to 14 minutes under former coach Barry Melrose. But after the coaching change, Stamkos said, GM Brian Lawton told him it's a "fresh start."
"We've got to see if he gets some ice time, what he can do at this level," Tocchet said. "He's a young kid, we got to start insulating him a little bit better, get some infrastructure with him, and I think practicing with Marty and Vinny gets his confidence up."
Stamkos, a natural center, said he isn't worried about the adjustment to right wing, which he played during the World Junior Championships and Thursday against the Red Wings. He pointed out how, on the wing, he'll have less defensive responsibilities but will have to win "battles in the corner," something Tocchet said he has gotten better at.
"His hockey IQ has gotten a lot better as a junior player to NHL player," Tocchet said. "Working down low, it's a process. People have got to understand he's an 18-19 year old, there's a process."
Vinny Prospal said he understood the decision to move him off his usual "MVP" line with Lecavalier and St. Louis (he will center a line with Radim Vrbata, whom Tocchet said has worked well with Prospal recently).
"We haven't been scoring as a team, no one really has been that hot, so you always look for something that might improve your offense," Prospal said.
"A guy like (Stamkos)," Tocchet said, "he might surprise us."
Odds and ends: Tocchet said Adam Hall is day to day after taking a puck off the foot Sunday. … Tocchet said Ryan Malone (lower-body injury) had an MRI on Monday and is feeling better but still day to day. … Tocchet said goalie Mike Smith will start tonight.
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.