ESTERO, Fla. — Life at the top in the NHL can be a precarious dance. A star forever tries to move forward, to shake the fingers eager to drag him down.
His existence is a swift, high-stakes game of cat and mouse. Grow and evolve, and he has claws. Become complacent and stagnate, and he scurries to adapt.
Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos, the league’s reigning goal-scoring champion, knows a career on the ice exists within this cliffhanger. Breakout seasons, in time, lead to curiosity about what will follow. There’s always another chapter to be written. There’s always another plot twist with each puck drop, with each test of a player’s evolution.
Questions facing Stamkos are simple, yet fascinating in this uncommon winter. The answers will go far in determining the Lightning’s success after their star’s career year: Will his sequel satisfy? Or will the Second Act fall flat?
“You’re always looking to improve,” said Stamkos on Thursday, shortly after the Lightning closed their final training-camp session at Germain Arena before their season opener against the Washington Capitals on Saturday night at Tampa Bay Times Forum. “For me, it’s being an all-around player. As a centerman, my face-offs have to continue to improve. I want to be a guy who can be counted on in the last minute of a tight game to be on the ice and secure that lead. That’s another step that I’m willing to take.”
Already, Stamkos has taken many steps. Revisit what the 22-year-old Markham, Ontario, native accomplished last season, his fourth since Tampa Bay took him first overall in the 2008 draft: He became the 20th player in NHL history to score 60 goals (his previous career high was 51 from the 2009-10 campaign); he earned a career-best 97 points, 12 shy of Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin’s league-high mark; and he produced a plus-seven plus/minus rating, topping his previous high of plus-three set the year before.
Then there are the unseen benefits. With time, Stamkos has become a greater presence within the dressing room, a sign of his development since earning a career-low 46 points and 23 goals as a rookie. Teammates say he has grown as a leader as he has become more comfortable with his dart-and-score role. Coach Guy Boucher says Stamkos “is the best I’ve seen him” after five days of training camp; to him, the star’s strength and intensity and mental focus are superior when compared to previous years.
“Right now, he has really taken a role in terms of a two-way player,” said Boucher, who guided the Lightning to a 38-36-8 record and 84 points last season. “That’s extremely important to him, and it is to us. He’s a horse on the ice right now. It’s really hard to stop him when he maintains it. That’s leadership in itself. But I think what he has gained in the last two years is how to manage games where he doesn’t score a goal and things don’t necessarily go his way. He’s able to refocus, and that’s huge in terms of leadership.”
Stamkos’ progress as a leader on and off the ice is clear, but the abbreviated season will serve as a fast-forward button for his vision. This scenario presents more intrigue, both for those who dress alongside the young star and those who scheme against him.
Starting Saturday, when Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals visit to place an embarrassing lockout in the past, time will be short but the chances plenty for Stamkos. He has 48 games to be the difference-maker he seeks to be. He has 48 games to use the pressure to produce to help advance his career. He has 48 games to continue to form a legacy with a franchise striving to contend in the Eastern Conference.
Where will his quest lead? Another goal-scoring title, which would be his third? Tampa Bay’s second playoff berth in the last six years? Another spring without postseason hockey in the area?
Whatever the result, Stamkos will find motivation from within. That, more than anything, hints at his ceiling.
“I put a lot of expectation and pressure on myself as a player to perform,” said Stamkos, who hasn’t missed a game since his rookie year. “I know my role on this team. Every game, I want to go out there and generate offense and give my team a chance to win.”
“I know where my game is at, and I know when things are going well and when things aren’t and how to correct them when they’re not,” he continued. “As a player, you feel the pressure from your teammates to perform, and you feel it from yourself the most, because I know the type of player I want to be in this league. I showed it last year. I was very consistent. That’s the same path I want to take.”
No path is the same from one season to the next, of course. The shortened campaign will introduce intriguing obstacles, both predictable and unexpected, for all involved. It’s as if each team will begin with engines revved, and Saturday’s opener will begin a final-lap sprint to the finish line. Leaders like Stamkos will have more value.
“He has a desire not only to be good — but to be better every year,” Lightning winger Martin St. Louis said. “I think in this league, you need to keep reinventing yourself. If you’re good at something, they’re usually going to take it away. You just have to think of different ways to beat people.”
As Stamkos spoke about new beginnings Thursday, it wasn’t hard to envision a scenario where that process had begun. In a small dressing room, unpacked blue duffle bags were scattered on the floor. A mix of used gloves and sweaty jerseys, trash bins and laundry bins waited to be cleaned. Everything seemed possible. Everything seemed new.
For Stamkos, it all was part of his next step. Such is life at the top.