Tuesday, April 10, 2012

It's easy as 1-2-3 for Tampa Bay's Stamkos

By Larry Wigge

It's hard to admit that two-time 50-goal man Steven Stamkos is continuing to learn ... and that he overcame a mental hiccup to succeed.

The Tampa Bay Lightning center from Markham, Ontario, Stamkos hardly could start better than he did last season. He scored 21 goals in his first 22 games, and the NHL was buzzing about his chances to score 50 in 50 games. However, he scored only four goals in the last 22 games and five in the last 28.

"It's hard to admit that the mental part can so much a part of the game ... but it is," Stamkos exclaimed, still unable to explain a goal-scoring glitch that affected his game midway through his third year in the NHL. 

"You kind of have to evolve your game. You kind of have kind of re-invent yourself after a while ..."

Still trying to find an answer, he said, "Teams are so good at breaking down video, picking up on trends and seeing what different players the pattern how they like to score and where they go on the ice ...

"Going through the slump after the all-star break last season really help me as a player. I know now that it's not an easy league to score goal in."

Still, it's a matter of fact that Steven Stamkos, the first player picked in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, has now scored 51, 45 and 60 goals in the last three season. He smashed the Tampa Bay single-season record of 52 goals Vincent Lecavalier (2006-07) and was only the second player to score 60 goals in the NHL in last 16 years -- Alex Ovechkin scored 65 goals in the 2007-08 season.

He has 156 goals since the start of the 2009-10 season, 36 more than the next-closest player (Ovechkin, 120).

Said Stamkos, "The way you fight that adversity is the way you become better as a player. The best players ever to play have gone through streaks like this. It's not something you have to panic about. You just have to stick with the plan."

Stars like Stamkos start at a real early age, learning the techniques of shooting and skating and puckhandling.

The NHL star Stamkos identified with was Joe Sakic. Steven liked the way the Colorado star carried himself on and off the ice, and how he dictated play as much with his thinking as with his skating and shooting. Like Sakic, Steven was a fluid, powerful skater in his pre-teen years. He wanted to snap off wrist shots like his idol, but he found getting the puck off the ice difficult.

Chris Stamkos, his dad, enrolled him in a twice-weekly shooting school.

"I was 8 or 9," Stamkos remembered. "It one one-on-one with the instructor. He would teach the technique and then we would start shooting 300-400 pucks a day. I wasn't a very big kid, so ... I couldn't get raise the puck of the ice.

"Eventually, when I was nine I was starting to develop my signature shot -- the one-timer."

Chris Stamkos was a helpful father. He was working for American Express and a life-long Toronto Maple Leafs fans. Lesley, his mom, was a telemarketer.

"I think I was about three years old when I went to my first game at Maple Leaf Gardens," Stamkos said. "I'm not sure but I think it was Boston. I started crying when the crowd got loud."

Now the 6-1, 185-pound center loves the loud crowds.

"I think dynamic is the word that comes to mind for me," said New Jersey Devils coach Peter DeBoer, who also coached against when he was at Kitchener of the Ontario Hockey Association. "I think when you've got that category of player, they have to be dynamic to separate themselves from the other players. He's a dynamic skater. On top of that, I think he’s an above average competitor and has great hockey sense and is a great kid. When you’ve got that kind of skill and combine it with some good character, it’s the whole package."

"He's quick, competitive, a goal-scorer, a playmaker ... he's a little bit of everything," said St. Louis Blues President John Davidson. "When you look at the draft and you see a Stamkos sitting there ...  now you knew there's a silver lining after a disappointing season."

There's never been much bulky about this kid who was a star in lacrosse, track and field, and baseball before hockey took over and he realized he had a chance to be good. At the NHL prospects luncheon he admitted his best sport was baseball.

"My dad always thought I was a better baseball player than at hockey and I played until I was almost 16 as a shortstop," said Stamkos, whose been ticketed for NHL stardom ever since he was everyone's pick as No. 1 overall in his OHL draft year.

"We won the provincial championship three years in a row but I ended up choosing hockey. I was also pretty good at long-distance running. I did the 400 metres and the triple jump in school. I was just the kind of kid that wanted to give everything a try."

"It's important for any competitor to feel he has control over his game," coach Guy Boucher said. "Whether he's linked to Marty or Vinny or anyone who has been here before, deep down every player wants to be his own man."

"You like to know," Stamkos said, "that you can be a player who can go out there and want the puck and make plays."

How do his teammates see Stamkos? Said Lecavalier: "He's definitely his own man."

"I think going through the playoff experience last year, I learned a lot about myself, what it takes to win at this level," Stamkos said.

Stamkos knows that you need a good training regimen to get the required results. Every summer he goes back to former Lightning player Gary Roberts training camp. 

"It's just the evolution of finding different ways to score," Stamkos said. "Physically, I just feel stronger. I feel like I'm winning a lot more battles and sustaining pressure by utilizing my speed and strength."

"He can shoot, he can skate, he can stickhandle. He's got all the tools," Capitals coach Dale Hunter said. "That's why whatever league he's gone to, he's lit it up. He's a superstar, that's all."

"He knows his place, and he knows that we're leaning on him to take a bigger role in that department," St. Louis said. "But that's just not given to you. You earn that, that leadership. You need the respect from your teammates, which he has, and you have to earn that every year, which he will again this year.

"It's part of maturing, and he's on the right path."

No more hiccups for Steven Stamkos.

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