So much for the hand-wringing and uncertainty. Lightning center Steven Stamkos admitted to both after his longtime right wing, Marty St. Louis, was switched to Vinny Lecavalier's line in hopes of getting the captain going. St. Louis had meant so much to Stamkos' development as a rookie last season, and the two hadn't missed a beat this season. But three games into the experiment — the next is today against the Devils at the St. Pete Times Forum — no worries. Stamkos has five goals in those games, six in his past four. "It's great playing with Marty," Stamkos said. "You always want to play with a guy like that. But it's nice to play well without him and prove you can be a good player even when you're not with him."
Good? Stamkos, 19, has been better than that. The No. 1 overall draft pick of 2008 has a team-best nine goals, and his 14 points are tied for the top spot with St. Louis.
His five power-play goals entered Friday tied for the league lead, and he was ninth with a 58.1 faceoff winning percentage.
Good? The center lately has been Tampa Bay's best.
"He's one of the bright young stars of this league," said Canadian and U.S. TV analyst and former Whalers coach Pierre McGuire, who watched Stamkos get two goals and an assist in Thursday's 5-2 victory over the Senators.
"He's so much quicker, and his legs have more power. He was always good. Now he's about to take it to the next level."
"He's proving to himself he can have success in this league, and that's the biggest battle," St. Louis said. "You gain confidence, you prove yourself first and foremost, and have the ability to be a game-breaker, which is what he is."
Underused as a rookie by his first coach, Barry Melrose, Stamkos found life under new coach Rick Tocchet.
There was the crash physical fitness program with strength coach Chuck Lobe, video sessions with assistant coach Wes Walz and Tocchet's willingness to play Stamkos more minutes and pair him with St. Louis.
The result: Stamkos scored a team rookie record 23 goals last season, 19 in his final 39 games.
"The coaching staff did a great job," he said. "They really showed they cared and wanted to make me a better player. … They could have just let me be on my own and fend for myself. It's a big factor for where my game is today, because they worked to make me better."
Stamkos worked, too, training last summer, and adding about 7 pounds of muscle, with former Lightning teammate Gary Roberts, whose in-house gym is a quick drive from Stamkos' family home in Unionville, Ontario.
"You're comfortable on the ice," said Stamkos, 6 feet 1, 196 pounds. "You're checking guys, you're trying to create chances where you can go, and it starts from being better defensively. I've gotten a lot quicker and stronger, and I can win battles down low and win faceoffs."
Add speed that gets him to the puck first, a zippy wrist shot and a linemate in left wing Ryan Malone who feeds him the puck and provides muscle down low, and you have, as Tocchet said, "a hell of a hockey player."
"He's more confident with the puck," Malone said. "He's being patient and letting it all unfold in front of him, and he's making the right decisions out there."
Such as to push his game when St. Louis was replaced by Steve Downie and now Alex Tanguay.
"You have to realize, Marty is first to the puck in the corners," Stamkos said. "Now you have to get in there and get some pucks and create chances for yourself."
"To me, that's what a leader is," Tocchet said. "You might have to switch somebody around to figure things out, but to Stammer, it was a challenge.
"Is he where his potential is? No, but he's getting there. He's taken the ball and run with it."
In no uncertain terms.