TAMPA — Steven Stamkos has been a lot of things.
He started his NHL career as a teenage phenom, 2008’s No. 1 overall draft pick here to save the Lightning. He was a rising star then on a not-great team. In the ensuing years, Stamkos dealt with injuries. He became a playmaker.
Through it all, Stamkos has been a pure goal scorer, the best the organization has had. And he’s on the verge of the ultimate proof.
Stamkos needs four goals to break Vinny Lecavalier’s record of 383 for most in franchise history. And he has played about two-thirds the number of games Lecavalier played for Tampa Bay — 722 compared to 1,037.
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Tyler Johnson has played six-plus seasons with Stamkos, and he has almost two more seasons with the organization’s AHL teams. He knows how Stamkos scores goals.
“It was probably a pretty safe assumption that he was going to take that over,” Johnson said of the team goal record. “But Vinny is a heck of a player, so for ‘Stammer’ to do that is quite a feat. Hopefully he can do that and get a lot more.”
Stamkos could tie the record with a hat trick when the Lightning hosts the Canadiens tonight at Amalie Arena. (By the way, he already has the team record for most hat tricks with nine).
When you see that many goals from a player, you can almost forget just how good he is. Stamkos has scored over and over again from the left faceoff circle, particularly on one-timers. He has a hard shot. But when he scores so much from there, it becomes just another Stamkos one-timer from the circle.
He scored two goals from the bottom of that circle in Thursday’s win against the Stars, one on a one-timer, one a settled wrist shot. They looked like typical Stamkos goals.
The thing is, very few players can score a typical Stamkos goal.
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The appreciation in assistant coach and 14-year NHL center Jeff Halpern’s voice is clear as he talks about Stamkos’ scoring touch. He refers to three goals in particular: the one-timer Thursday (”You might see that for a long time”), a deflection on a rush at Florida on Sunday and a goal scored in Montreal in November (presumably on his mind as the team reviewed film in advance of tonight’s game).
“He’s just good,” Halpern said. “In Montreal, he got a pass coming across the blue line, 10 feet in, it’s bar down. But it’s not a fluke. It’s almost like he’s passing it into these spots. His creativity, you see why he was a 60-goal scorer.”
Stamkos’ 60-goal season was 2011-12, and he’s making plays like he hasn’t since then.
That’s not to say Stamkos hasn’t been scoring. Last year’s 27 goals were his fewest for a full season since his rookie year, and even then he shifted to playmaker and posted 86 points.
It took a year for Stamkos to settle into that role. This season, his 11th, his point total is almost equally split between goals (32) and assists (37).
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Halpern knows exactly what Stamkos looked like as he adjusted to the league in 2008-09 and 2009-10. They were teammates. Halpern was about at the point in his career where Stamkos is now.
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“He went through some growing pains that first year,” Halpern said. “But slowly, you start seeing glimpses. He gets more and more opportunities, and all of a sudden, those things just become the norm after a while.”
That’s where we are, the norm. Stamkos has referred to finding a new norm after breaking his right leg in the 2013-14 season and suffering a torn meniscus in his right knee in 2016-17. Both in his new norm, he has maintained the same scoring touch. Over his career, Stamkos has scored at a rate of about a goal every two games.
The Stamkos that Halpern knew in his early NHL years is the same Stamkos now, just older and with a more rounded perspective, not only on his game but the team’s. Halpern finds that change from 18-year-old to mature captain at 29 a neat one to see. The rest is just Stamkos being Stamkos.
“If you paint his hockey card, so to speak, it’s of him going up the ice, throwing it out to Marty (St. Louis) and going to the net,” Halpern said. “He was doing that for years and now with (Nikita Kucherov), same thing.”
Whatever else he has been, Stamkos is a goal scorer.