TORONTO — Steven Stamkos is a thinker and a student of the game, so it’s difficult for him to avoid reflecting on his place in hockey history as he approaches another major milestone. He often says the time for reflection is later, maybe when he’s done playing, and he doesn’t plan on that time coming soon.
But the more time you spend around the Lightning forward, you realize how much it all means to him because of the reverence he has for the game and how he feels lucky to still be part of it, which is probably why he has fought so hard through several devastating injuries to ensure he’s still able to play at an elite level 15 seasons into his NHL career.
He has a good memory. He can pull details from practically every goal he has scored —where it was, who was on the ice, how it played out, how it felt. Stamkos clearly loves the sport. Now, after becoming the first Lightning player to tally 1,000 points, he is three goals shy of becoming the 47th player in NHL history to score 500 goals. When he hits that mark, he’ll join Washington’s Alex Ovechkin and Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby as the only active players to reach the milestone.
“I still think it’s a pretty amazing thing that when you come into the league, you don’t think you’ll ever be able to accomplish something like that,” Stamkos said before Tuesday’s game in Toronto. “You don’t think of that thing. You think of the Stanley Cup and envisioning winning that.
“Sure, you want to do all these great individual things, but it just puts things into perspective a little bit. You just appreciate all the people that have helped you get there, and hopefully there’s still a lot more years to come.”
‘An unbelievable player’
Stamkos jokes that all the Lightning scoring records he owns eventually will belong to Nikita Kucherov. Though he’s one of the top scorers of this era, when it comes to goals, Stamkos has been overshadowed by Ovechkin, the 37-year-old Capitals star who Friday passed Gordie Howe for second on the NHL career goals list with his 802nd and is on track to surpass Wayne Gretzky’s all-time record, 894.
Though Stamkos, who turns 33 in February, has been the face of the league’s most dominant team over the past decade and has lifted the Stanley Cup twice, the 35-year-old Crosby — who entered the league in 2005, three years before Stamkos, with the same wunderkind, can’t-miss potential — has won more Stanley Cup championships (three) and more individual awards.
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But that doesn’t take anything away from Stamkos’ greatness. It takes something special for a player to reach 500 goals. It’s more than longevity or production. Anyone who scores that many goals has to be adept at adjusting in a constantly evolving game.
“It’s a lot different from when we got into the league,” said Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman, 32, Stamkos’ teammate for the past 14 seasons. “But he’s been able to evolve with the game, and it’s not just the goal scoring that’s impressive. It’s his two-way game, the way he’s evolved in that area of the game.
“But he’ll score from all different types of ways and areas. He’s famous for the one-timer from that left side, but you know, it’s getting in front of the net. He’s that, he’s creating off rebounds. He’s just an unbelievable player.”
‘He knows where to go on the ice’
Stamkos’ one-timer is legendary, and every opponent knows the Lightning will try to set him up for that shot from the left circle. But since his rookie season, Stamkos has had to adjust his shot and find different areas from which to score and different ways to do it.
“He’s changing it up all the time because he has to,” said Lightning TV analyst and former NHL defenseman Brian Engblom. “If his favorite shot is far side top shelf, goalies will be standing there waiting. They’re not stupid; they do their homework. Sometimes he’s got to go low. Sometimes it’s just a few feet off the ice over the pad, under the glove. Other times it’s right up under the bar.
“And then he has that thing you can’t teach. He’s a goal scorer. He knows where to go on the ice. And he knows when to get there because he can’t just go and stand, because somebody’s going to go, ‘Oh, that’s Steven Stamkos. I better get to him now because I know they’re going to pass it to him.’ And he’s been living with that since his rookie year. It just increased over the years.”
The game has changed in the decade and a half since Stamkos entered the league as the top overall draft pick in 2008. He remembers Lightning great and Hall of Famer Marty St. Louis reminding him after every season, “OK, what are you going to do next year? You’ve always got to make adjustments to your game.”
Now, as he enters his mid-30s, Stamkos is coming off his first 100-point season. He is within reach of another 40-goal season while averaging as much ice time as he did at age 25.
At ages when they should be slowing, Stamkos, Ovechkin and Crosby still are filling the net. Stamkos said he has benefited from a faster game. Younger stars such as the Oilers’ Connor McDavid and the Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews are dominating the game with speed and skill, and that has changed the way the game is played. It’s still physical, especially in the postseason, but Stamkos said there’s not as much wear and tear on the body.
“If you can maintain somewhere close to that (speed and skill) as an aging guy in this league, your smarts always usually prevail,” Stamkos said. “In a total sense of where (the game) was maybe 15 years ago, it’s a little different. There’s more emphasis on the puck possession and the speed and the skill than there was (before, when) ‘Every time this guy gets the puck tonight, we’re going to run them.’ It’s just a little different mentality.”
‘In his prime right now’
In 2008, Ryan Malone came to Tampa Bay from Pittsburgh, where he played with generational greats Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in their early years. He was placed on the same line as Stamkos during Stamkos’ rookie season. Part of Malone’s job was to protect Stamkos and make sure other teams didn’t try to rough him up. Malone saw greatness in Stamkos right away and marvels at the level he’s at now.
“Just his skating ability and shot, it was just crazy to see him do three crossovers and go from board to board,” Malone said. “But I really think all those trials that he’s been through, the injuries he’s gone through, has built him into this amazing player. I think last year’s playoffs was by far the most complete hockey I’ve ever seen him play. I think he’s in his prime right now. And that’s scary to think about.”
Stamkos entered the holiday break at 497 goals. He hasn’t scored since Dec. 13 against Seattle.
Stamkos admits that early in his career, a drought like his current four-game one — especially when chasing a milestone — would have bothered him. Now he knows his time will come.
“I think as I’ve kind of matured throughout this career so far, when you get close to certain things, I used to really overanalyze them and think about it, and it would keep you up at night. I think having kids now, too (he has two sons under the age of 5), it puts things into perspective a little bit. You learn how to navigate certain situations and you just let things happen, and when they’re meant to be, they’re meant to be.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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