Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrates his hat trick against the Chicago Blackhawks on Feb. 17, 2009. (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)
It’s been a relatively long time since anybody thought Steven Stamkos would be this year’s NHL rookie of the year.
In early October, before the season began, last year’s No. 1 overall pick was viewed as a definite Calder contender. But going almost the entire first month of your NHL career without a point has a way of burying you in the rookie race.
Stamkos went the first seven games of the year without getting on the scoresheet before breaking through in Game 8 with an assist. He added two goals and three points in his final October contest to end the month with a whopping four points.
That seems pretty paltry until you consider that last season, the Caps’ Nicklas Backstrom concluded his first month of action as a rookie with just one more point than Stamkos on the strength of five October assists.
By late November, Backstrom had only tacked on four more assists for nine points. Then new coach Bruce Boudreau took over from Glen Hanlon and Backstrom took off.
Starting to sound familiar yet?
For more than a month now, Stamkos has finally been showing people why his name was called before any others at the 2008 draft. Playing center for Martin St-Louis, Stamkos looks infinitely more confident carrying the puck and his mentality has shifted from ‘what should I do?’ to ‘watch what I can do.’
It’s great to see, because Stamkos got a bit of a rough ride under former Tampa bench boss Barry Melrose. Hearing your coach openly question your ability to play in the league at such a young age would be enough to turn anybody’s disposition from happy-go-lucky to hangdog – even the smiley Stamkos.
While his maturation under new coach Rick Tocchet wasn’t as immediate as that of Backstrom under Boudreau, Stamkos has obviously benefited from the change. And, after being scratched three times by Tocchet, he’s now getting re-acquainted with that wonderful, satisfying feeling of being physically spent.
On four occasions this month, Stamkos has seen more than 20 minutes of ice time, peaking at 22:15 in a game last Saturday against Florida. That’s a huge change from earlier in the year when he’d sometimes see less than 10 minutes of action in a game.
He’s also a 19-year-old playing out of position by manning the point on the power play. If that isn’t a sure sign he’s earned the coach’s trust, what is?
Backstrom’s turnaround last year ended up earning him a nomination for the Calder Trophy that Chicago’s Patrick Kane won. Stamkos, I’d have to believe, would need about three goals per game over his final 12 contests to loosen Steve Mason’s death-grip on this year’s award.
But is a nomination completely out of the question? Stamkos has nine goals and 16 points in his past 18 games. Let’s just go ahead and give him five more goals and 15 points over the home stretch. That would mean a nice round 20-goal, 50-point rookie campaign, which would almost certainly land him in the top five in freshman scoring, possibly even the top three.
His late-season surge and high profile overall would also help carve out a prominent place in the minds of voters. Is that enough to make him a finalist ahead of Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, Ducks winger Bobby Ryan or surprising Blackhawks center Kris Versteeg?
Maybe not, but it’s a great indication his next October will be a lot more fun than his first one.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Fridays.
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