It was enough of a challenge for Steven Stamkos to make a fast return from a broken leg he suffered in early November. But when he steps on the ice in Tampa Bay Thursday night against the Buffalo Sabres, Stamkos will face a new one as he begins a new era for himself and the Lightning.
His Tampa Bay Lightning.
With former captain Martin St-Louis dealt to the New York Rangers prior to Wednesday’s trade deadline, the Bolts are now Stamkos’ team. For the first five years of his NHL career, Stamkos was the heir to the franchise’s throne who could apprentice in the shadow of St-Louis and Vincent Lecavalier. But with both gone, he is far and away Tampa’s best player and the man who will have to set the tone for the rest of the team. If that sounds like a tall order for someone who is only 24 years old, it is. But few elite young NHLers have been better groomed for this moment than Stamkos. His commitment to fitness under Gary Roberts and willingness to work on all elements of his game has earned him the respect and admiration of his peers and teammates.
Although he no longer has the reigning Art Ross Trophy winner as a teammate and mentor, Stamkos isn’t on an island, scanning the horizon in vain for players who can help him win. There are more than enough of those who are there already. Lightning GM Steve Yzerman got a decent-if-short-term return for St-Louis in former Rangers captain Ryan Callahan, but the Bolts have survived Stamkos’ four-month absence in large part because the team is about more than one or two star players. The emergence of youngsters Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn have provided the team with breathing room on offense, while their defense corps (including the blossoming Victor Hedman, Radko Gudas and veterans Matt Carle, Sami Salo and Eric Brewer) is underrated. Under Ben Bishop, their goaltending has been extraordinary. And head coach Jon Cooper has demonstrated his proficiency in the role right from the get-go.
So despite the fact Stamkos can do it all, he isn’t painted into a corner where he has to do it all. That’s the kind of low-pressure situation that will allow him to thrive. He’ll also be helped this summer, when the Lightning can spend some or all of the $24.6 million they have in salary cap space to improve the team. Some of it may go to Callahan if he decides to stick around, but if that’s not the case, Yzerman will have no issue finding free agents and/or disgruntled top players on other teams willing to play in sunny Florida without the specter of a state income tax hanging over their bank accounts. The Bolts aren’t going to be anybody’s pushovers for some time to come, which is why you can forget about any rumors you hear linking Stamkos to leaving the team when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2016. Odds are he’ll be signed to a long-term contract extension well before then.
Tampa fans are right to be upset with St-Louis’ departure, even if, as he’s hinted, it wasn’t simply about not initially being named to Canada’s Olympic team. But they ought not to get overly morose. Stamkos is nobody’s consolation prize. And the opening he has in the wake of the trade could be ideal for allowing him to take that next step and show the hockey world precisely how excellent he can be.
The St-Louis-Lecavalier-Brad Richards glory days are over and gone – and during the tenth anniversary of Tampa Bay’s lone Stanley Cup win, that has to sting their supporters. But Stamkos can deliver more of those days without the aid of two fellow superstars. He’s that tremendous – and with him in tow, the Lightning are likely to be a force with which to reckon.