Steven Stamkos: From franchise savior to franchise leader

Romano: He is two goals away from tying the Lightning record for career goals, and leading Tampa Bay on a potential Stanley Cup run.
Steven Stamkos, pictured in a Seen Stamkos? T-shirt. (Photo from video/YouTube)
Steven Stamkos, pictured in a Seen Stamkos? T-shirt. (Photo from video/YouTube)
Published Feb. 26, 2019

They never said he was a savior, which is important to remember. They didn’t introduce Steven Stamkos as a future Hall of Famer, and they didn’t suggest he would change the landscape in Tampa Bay.

They just implied it.

That was the beauty of the most clever ad campaign in Tampa Bay sports history. In the months before Tampa Bay made Stamkos the No. 1 pick in the 2008 draft, the catchphrase started showing up on billboards. On a website. On bumper stickers and T-shirts. Even on sidewalk art.

Seen Stamkos?

It was a sly way to introduce the world’s best 18-year-old hockey player to a starved fan base. It was more of a tease than a promise. And now, 11 years later, the question is an exclamation.

Seen Stamkos!

• • •

Any day now, Stamkos will become Tampa Bay’s all-time leader in goals scored, passing another overall No. 1 pick Vincent Lecavalier. Three months from now, we’ll also know whether he will lift the Stanley Cup in Tampa Bay, the way Lecavalier once did.

He is, by now, one of ours. His birth certificate will say Ontario, but his legacy will always be Tampa Bay. He is the player who scored 60 goals in a season. The player who lived through the franchise’s dark years. The player who has come back from a broken leg, a blood clot issue and a busted knee.

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Mostly, the player who has justified the expectations that have followed like a shadow since he was a teenager.

“People don’t give him enough credit for what he’s been through, not only to survive but to go on and thrive,’’ said Jay Feaster, who was the Lightning general manager when Stamkos was drafted. “Between the pressure on him and the state of the franchise, a lot of players would crumble. They’d take a step back and it might be years before they recovered. His mental strength has been incredible.’’

Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) is seen in the tunnel during last year's playoffs. (DIRK SHADD | Times)
Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) is seen in the tunnel during last year's playoffs. (DIRK SHADD | Times)

You have to remember what hockey looked like in Tampa Bay before Stamkos arrived.

The Stamkos campaign had to reflect the game-changing nature of this draft pick without going overboard.

All of this was happening a few years after the popularity of the Got Milk? ad campaign. The idea of a Got Stamkos? theme had been floated before Lightning marketing director Mark Gullett came up with the Seen Stamkos? idea that was built around a video of Stamkos’ circus-like moves in junior hockey.

“This was a better way, a more fun way, to help the city understand just how important this guy was going to be without saying he’s the next Michael Jordan,’’ said Kevin Marshall, president of Marshall Advertising which helped launch the campaign. “Right after he was drafted my wife got the chance to meet him, and her first thought was that he looked like he was 14 or 15. She said it was crazy to think this kid was coming to save the franchise.’’

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Save it? That might be a little strong. Jeff Vinik would later have something to do with that. So would Victor Hedman, Steve Yzerman, Jon Cooper and others.

But it was Stamkos who arrived at the lowest point, and with the greatest fanfare. And it is Stamkos who is still here today.

“He has been total class since day one,’’ said former Lightning president Ron Campbell. “I remember watching him at his first press conference and thinking how impressive he was. Remember, those were some interesting times, things were a little dark. He stood up tall above it all. It’s really been a joy watching the success he’s had over the years.’’

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He is a more well-rounded player than in his best goal-scoring days, and a greater influence in the Lightning locker room. But with 33 goals in 63 games, it’s not as if he’s on the downslope of a career. It’s taken some time to recover from the 2016 knee injury, but he’s still an elite scorer.

“He’s always been a sniper,’’ said Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman. “He doesn’t need a lot of chances to score.’’

With 381 career goals, Stamkos passed Marty St. Louis earlier this season and is now two away from tying Lecavalier’s franchise record. And at 29, he has a major part of his career still ahead.

Here’s another way of looking at it:

Sidney Crosby has been the planet’s best hockey player for much of the past decade, and no one would argue that he has been a superior player to Stamkos.

And yet it took Crosby 774 games to reach 381 goals in his career. Stamkos got there in 724 games.

“To me, it goes back to his determination to be the best,’’ said former Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk. “People don’t understand if you’re one of the better players it’s because you’ve worked the hardest. I see that with Stammer. To work back from all the injuries he had shows a lot of character.

“He’s a very intelligent hockey player who understands where the game has gone, where it’s going, what he needs to do. Some guys just go through their entire careers and don’t understand this is what I have to do. Stammer’s figured it out.’’

Seen Stamkos?

Oh yeah.