TAMPA — When Mitchell Stephens received his first NHL callup Dec. 9, he didn’t know how long his stay with the Lightning would be or what opportunity his promotion would hold.
But one full month after making his debut, the forward has shown staying power, carving out a role on the fourth line by doing the little things right.
With every game comes new confidence and comfort for Stephens, a Lightning second-round draft pick in 2015 who turns 23 next month. Fifteen games into his NHL career, most of his firsts are out of the way. The Lightning have done their part to make Stephens’ adjustment easier.
“I think as every game goes on, you get more confident with the puck,” Stephens said ahead of tonight’s game against the Flyers, in which the Lightning have a chance to tie a franchise record with a 10th straight win.
“You realize that some plays you’re hesitant (with) early on, you can start to make. With the amount of talent in this room, you just get better playing with them.”
Stephens showed early in his Lightning time an ability to make an impact in the faceoff circle. He is fast on his skates and is an assertive forechecker. Because of that, his playing time is increasing.
In Thursday’s 4-0 win over the Coyotes, Stephens logged 13:04 in ice time, the most he has had since joining the Lightning and the third time in the past four games that he logged at least 11 minutes, something he didn’t do once in his first 11 games.
When Stephens received his initial callup, it was to fill in for injured forward Tyler Johnson after Stephens had scored five goals in 24 games with AHL Syracuse. Since then, while more experienced players such as Mathieu Joseph and Cory Conacher play in Syracuse, Stephens has played in every Lightning game.
“For me, it’s a matter of doing every little thing to help the team win,” Stephens said. “There’s a lot of really good and talented players on this team, NHL All-Stars on this team, so my job is to bring energy and bring speed on the forecheck and help the team as much as I can in every area.”
Stephens has won 55.2 percent of his faceoffs, the fourth-best percentage on the team, and has even earned time on the Lightning’s penalty kill. In Thursday’s game, Stephens had a season-high 14 faceoff opportunities, winning eight.
“We’ve been putting him in positions to win some big faceoffs and he’s doing a good job there,” coach Jon Cooper said. “We’re not putting any pressure on him and say, ‘Oh, you’ve got to be scoring. We’d love you to, but that’s not what you’re here for. We’re trying to put you in situations to succeed and draw from that success,’ and he’s been doing it.
“He understands he’s not a 20-minute guy here, but the minutes he’s getting, he’s grateful for them and he’s going to give us his best.”
Mitchell has two goals, and there are signs his offense could develop, especially playing alongside Carter Verhaeghe, another rookie who provides speed on the fourth line and who got his first NHL hat trick Tuesday against the Canucks.
“He’s gotten the opportunity to come up here and show that he belongs at this level,” Steven Stamkos said. “He’s kind of ran with that opportunity. If you asked him at the beginning, he probably thought he’d get called up and then sent back down, but he’s had an attitude.”
Stephens was limited to 32 games last season with Syracuse due to injury. He spent the offseason working outside Toronto alongside Stamkos with former NHL player turned renowned personal trainer Gary Roberts.
“It just shows the work ethic he’s had,” Stamkos said. “He’s earned and deserves to be the lineup every night since he got the callup.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard