Tampa Bay Lightning's Steve Stamkos working his way toward stardom

In the shootout win over the Wild, Steven Stamkos scores the Lightning’s first goal, assists on the one that sends the game into overtime with 14.7 seconds left and has the shootout winner.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

In the shootout win over the Wild, Steven Stamkos scores the Lightning’s first goal, assists on the one that sends the game into overtime with 14.7 seconds left and has the shootout winner.

TAMPA — Sometimes, the arrival comes so quickly, it is easy to forget how far a player has come.

Consider, for instance, the continuing journey of Steven Stamkos.

He floated down the ice, taking his time, absorbing the moment like a singer performing a solo. The Lightning was in one of those vexing, this-is-what-hell-is-like shootouts, and Stamkos had a chance to close the door on the Wild.

These days, who else would you rather have the puck?

Stamkos, as you might expect, tucked the puck into the right side of the net. Of course he did.

Such was the next chapter in the story of Stamkos, the Lightning player who seems intent on becoming a star before anyone can figure out where he came from.

Against Minnesota on Thursday, Stamkos had another one of those games where you want to check his driver's license. He scored his 13th goal. He made a dazzling pass to Ryan Malone to help force overtime with 14.7 seconds to go. And he ended it with his shootout goal.

Sixteen games into the season, and who can wait for tomorrow? Sixteen games in, and already Stamkos has shown the touch of a scorer, the presence of a leader and the urgency of an athlete who is in a hurry to get to greatness.

And with every goal Stamkos scores, don't you have this question:

Gee. I wonder what Captain Mullet thought about that one?

Somewhere, Barry Melrose is watching. Of course he is. Somewhere, he is seeing the player he did not believe in grow into something special. Somewhere, he is watching a player he did not think belonged in the NHL play as if the league belongs to him.

Somewhere, you get the idea that Melrose might sum it up like this:

"Well, oops."

For Stamkos, Thursday night's game was an anniversary of sorts. It was around this time last year when the Lighting fired Melrose as coach and, as a result, released Stamkos from the far end of the bench, where playing time came like drops of water.

Perhaps concerned the Lightning might change its mind, Stamkos has not slowed since.

So far this season he has been the Lightning's best player. To put it better, he has been one of the league's best players. Stamkos scored his 13th goal against Minnesota. Last year, he was lucky if he played 13 minutes.

How do you explain the difference in Stamkos? Easy. You measure it in all the drops of sweat from his body, all the ounces of weights he has lifted and all the frames of video he has watched. You measure it in the part of Stamkos that wants to be, expects to be, an elite player in the league.

Maybe, just maybe, you measure it in the part of a competitor who wants to prove his old coach wrong for suggesting he wasn't strong enough, or ready enough, for the NHL.

"I wouldn't say it had too much effect on me," Stamkos said. "But anything that adds fuel to the fire isn't going to hurt. I wouldn't say it's the one thing that made me a better player, but it definitely helps motivate you. You want to prove those guys wrong.

"Should he have said it? Maybe not. But maybe he was frustrated with his own situation. Did I need to get stronger? Yeah, I think I did. It's a big jump as an 18-year-old, playing against grown men who are bigger, stronger, faster. But I thought my skill set was there, my speed was there."

Soon enough, everyone knew it. As soon as Melrose left the building, and as soon as Stamkos' ice time increased, it didn't take long for Stamkos to prove he belonged. He had two goals when Melrose left after 16 games, and four after 40 games. Down the stretch, however, Stamkos caught fire and finished with 23.

"(Stamkos) might not say it, but absolutely, I think (the criticism) helped drive him in the offseason," Lightning coach Rick Tocchet said. "I'm sure he goes in and says 'I want to prove people wrong.' That's a nice tool to have, and he's that type of guy.

"Whether it's true, whether he wasn't strong enough or needed time, his approach was 'Let's roll up our sleeves and attack it.' And he did. He got in the gym. He watched video every day with our assistant coaches. He didn't pout.

"That's why he's where he's at today. The credit goes to him. He could have pouted and said 'I'm the No. 1 pick, and I wasn't treated well.' He said, 'Hey, let's go to work.' "

He is 19. At times, it is easy to forget that about Stamkos, too. He is the age of a college sophomore, playing in a league where some defenders have scars older than him. He has played fewer than 100 games.

Already, however, Stamkos has shown a flair for getting the puck to the far side of the goaltender. Consider this: Marty St. Louis has three goals. Vinny Lecavalier has two goals. Stamkos, the teeny­bopper, has 13.

So what makes a talented player a great one? Perhaps it is turning a coach's doubts into kindling for the fire that drives him. Perhaps it is the willingness to harness a sled behind him and fill it with 100 pounds of weight.

"I want to be an elite player in this league," Stamkos said. "I'm still young, but I feel like I have the ability to be one."

These days, doubt him at your peril.

Tampa Bay Lightning's Steve Stamkos working his way toward stardom 11/12/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 12, 2009 11:57pm]

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