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STARTING FRESH

No Vinny, no Marty, his broken leg healed, Steven Stamkos enters his prime.

Steven Stamkos is one of the best hockey players in the world - and the captain of the Lightning - but he can still enjoy his off-time in the bay area in an anonymous manner.

The center loves to golf, his passion since his grandfather Joe Walker got him started at age 7; he's now a 6 handicap. Stamkos goes paddleboarding and often takes his dog, Trigger, a 100-pound Swiss Mountain, to the dog beach or for a walk in the South Tampa waterfront neighborhood he has lived in for seven years.

And Stamkos, 24, said he can go unrecognized, a welcomed respite from his offseasons in his hometown near Toronto.

"I think I can enjoy that fact that you get enough notoriety around town but you don't get too much," he said. "You can go to the mall, go to dinner, go to the golf course, go to the beach, and for the most part you don't get bothered too much. It's nice to kind of fly under the radar."

But as the Lightning opens the season against the Panthers on Thursday at Amalie Arena, all eyes will be on Stamkos, who is a popular preseason candidate for the Hart Trophy (league MVP) and Art Ross (top scorer).

That's because Stamkos - who broke his right tibia in November and missed 45 games - is in a much better place, physically and mentally, than he was the final two months of last season. He's fitter, and maybe more explosive, than ever. He hopes for a day he feels like he never broke his leg; it's "getting closer."

The Lightning could see that during fitness testing on the first day of training camp, when Stamkos had team-best marks in the vertical jump (37.7 inches) and broad jump (10 feet, 4 inches). His vertical was 2.7 inches higher than before his injury.

"Very impressive," general manager Steve Yzerman said.

Teammates can sense it on the ice, watching the power and speed in Stamkos' skating, his fearlessness in battles during preseason games, including Saturday's finale against the Panthers. In the first period, Stamkos scored a power play goal, ripping a slap shot from the right circle into the top left corner of the net.

"He looks like 'Stammer,'" defenseman Victor Hedman said.

And for all Stamkos has accomplished in his first six years in the NHL - two Rocket Richard trophies (top goal scorer), two All-Star Game appearances, a 60-goal season - he and the Lightning believe the best might be yet to come.

"He's just entering the prime years of his career," said Yzerman, a Hall of Famer. "He's a highly motivated guy. He's improved his fitness every year. Being that driven, you're naturally going to get better over time."

Stamkos is the Lightning's longest-tenured player and the face of the franchise. For the first time since he arrived in 2008, the Lightning opens a season without Vinny Lecavalier or Marty St. Louis. It's his team.

"You relish that chance," he said. "It's pretty cool to honestly be on one team for so long and be a guy that's been here since I was 18 years old and continue to grow into a leader and a better player and person and get involved in the community. It's fun. Tampa is pretty much my home.

"Hopefully now it's kind of a fresh page. It's a new fresh start. Hopefully we take advantage of it."

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Last year was the toughest of his career.

Stamkos took a big step in his game last fall, playing both ends of the ice, taking shifts on the penalty kill (he still has to improve on faceoffs, 49 percent last season). But on Nov. 11 in Boston, Stamkos got tangled with Bruins defenseman Dougie Hamilton, and his right leg crashed into the post. He had surgery the next day.

"It was the first time I ever missed a game due to injury going back to junior. It was tough," Stamkos said. "The mind is a powerful thing; I learned that quickly. ... But if it was going to happen, it happened at the (worst) time."

Stamkos tried to make it back by February's Olympics, saying playing for Canada meant everything to him. It hurt that he had to watch the team win the gold medal on television.

"When you see them win a gold medal and you know that you would have been bringing a gold medal back, too ... " he said, "that's kind of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was tough, even tougher to see them win and see the ceremony and have so many of the guys on that team that I knew. I was obviously happy for them and a proud Canadian, but it made it a little tougher."

Stamkos was cleared to play March 5, the day St. Louis finally got his wish and was traded to the Rangers. In Stamkos' first game back, he wore the "C" on his jersey, a role teammates say he was born to play.

Stamkos said that with three former captains on the Lightning, it's a lead-by-committee approach. But he stands out.

"He's the leader of this team, for sure," Hedman said. "He's vocal when he has to, and when he talks, people listen."

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Stamkos said he likes the organization's direction, having finished third in the Eastern Conference last season. He couldn't be happier with Yzerman and what he calls an "unbelievable owner" in Jeff Vinik.

Vinik wants Stamkos, under contract the next two years, to finish his career in Tampa Bay. For that, Vinik will have to pay a hefty price when negotiations on an extension can start July 1. The Blackhawks' eight-year, $84 million extensions to star forwards Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are a good guide.

Stamkos said he can envision being a Lightning lifer.

"My goal is to win, and that's what I want," Stamkos said. "We're on the right path right now. We made a big step last year. I want to be part of that.

"I want to be winning a Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning. And hopefully that can happen."

Contact Joe Smith at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.

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