In 2008, Steven Stamkos was the best draft-eligible prospect in the world and the Leafs were one of the worst teams in the NHL. The Markham native knew the potential implications. “I’m not going to lie to you. I’ve checked out the NHL standings. I pay attention to where the Leafs sit.” said Stamkos on February 10th, 2008. “I know they’re near the bottom of the standings. The chance of (getting picked by them) definitely is in the back of my mind.”
At this point, the Leafs were just four points out of last place, and management was considering a fire sale. A few weeks later, their plan was foiled by their own players. This lead to the Tampa Bay Lightning selecting him first overall. He’s had an interesting road since.
The Hype Train
Understanding the homesickness than an eighteen-year-old who grew up around hockey could potential feel in Florida, the Lightning wanted to make sure that their crown jewel felt at home. They launched a marketing campaign, one which this series stole the name of, to get Tampa fans excited about him before they had even selected him; a stark departure from the secrecy in the draft years surrounding him.
The Lightning moved fast to use their asset in the public eye once he was officially theirs. He was signed to an ELC within a month, and almost immediately started making public appearances. Hellbent on completely shaking up the team, ownership began meddling in hockey operations, forcing Dan Boyle to accept a trade to San Jose, pressuring Jay Feaster into a bunch of other moves, and ultimately signing seven unrestricted free agents. They let go of Jon Tortorella and pulled Barry Melrose away from 13 years on ESPN to return to coaching.
The new group wanted fans in Tampa to know that they were serious about winning, and would do anything to make it happen. Besides, it’s not like things could get any worse, right?
A Rocky Start and a Near Trade
Things got worse. Unsurprisingly, signing Olaf Kolzig, Gary Roberts, and Mark Recchi was less effective in 2009 than it would have been in 1999. The Matt Carle – Andrej Meszaros duo didn’t pan out as hoped, and Carle was traded after just twelve games. The team sunk back to the bottom, but hey, what about the rookie superstar?
As it turns out, Melrose wasn’t convinced he was ready. Not only did the coach not look to Stamkos on special teams, he didn’t look to him much at all, playing him for less than 15 minutes (and sometimes as low as six) a game throughout the first month and a half of the season. As a result, Stamkos picked up just four points over a sixteen game stretch; all of which came in games 8 and 9.
Melrose was fired after those sixteen games; not because of Stamkos necessarily, but due to players being close enough to ownership that they felt little reason to listen to the coach. Stamkos fared much better under Rich Tocchet, who gave him the minutes he needed to score 42 points in his next 63 games, even has Tampa cut some of its mistaken assets loose.
Ownership still wasn’t pleased, though, and started working on a trade behind GM Brian Lawton’s back. They actually made a deal, which would have seen the Lightning acquire at least one of Michael Del Zotto, Evgeny Grachev, Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky or Dan Girardi. Len Barrie shook hands with Glen Sather, but after Lawton checked with Oren Koules, the other half of ownership, the deal was nixed.
Thanks to Lawton’s hesitance, ownership stuck with Stamkos for a little while longer, which turned out to be easily their smartest move.
Emergence of a Superstar
The next year, things started to change for Stamkos in rapid fashion. Now confident in his teenaged centre, Rich Tocchet committed to him as a 20 minute-per-game centre and assigned Martin St. Louis to play on his side. This allowed Stamkos to not only play in favourable situations but have someone to feed him the puck so he could play trigger man.
Steven Stamkos scored more goals in his sophomore season than he had points in his first. By the time he hit his 82nd game, he had crossed the 51 goal plateau, which earned him a Rocket Richard Trophy and significant conversation in the MVP race. While many criticised the fact that half of his goals came on the powerplay, he started to spread them out even more in his next season, with 28 of 45 coming at even strength. After a rocky start to his career, Stamkos had emerged into one of the league’s top goal scorers, and helped the team make it into the playoffs and to the Eastern Conference Finals. There was only one problem…
Restricted Free Agency
Stamkos let his contract expire without working on a new deal. Throughout the year, negotiations between the Lightning and Stamkos moved extremely slowly, something that became curious when the Lightning were able to agree to terms with Eric Brewer, who shared Stamkos’ agent Don Meehan. Months progressed without any new info, and on July 1st, Stamkos became a restricted free agent.
Nobody really knows why things got to this stage. Was Meehan nickel and diming Lightning GM Steve Yzerman? Was there just a lack of concern? Or was Stamkos waiting for an offer sheet that would punch his ticket to a more preferable market?
Whatever the case, nobody came in with an offer worth Stamkos’ time, and three weeks later, the stalemate ended with a 5-year contract that would pay him $7.5 million a year.
The next year made the rocky negotiations worth the wait. At just 21 years old, Stamkos became just the second player in fifteen years to score 60 goals in a season. Adjusted for era, Hockey-Reference ranks his efforts as the seventh-greatest in NHL history. With captain Vincent Lecavalier’s time with the team fading and Martin St. Louis getting up there in age, Stamkos had fully transitioned himself into being the face of the Lightning.
While he hasn’t hit sixty since, Stamkos continued his production into the seasons that followed. In the lockout-shortened year, he put up just shy of 30 goals; insane given that he had a little more than half the time to do it. In 2013/14, he hit the proverbial nitrous oxide, picking up 14 goals in his first 16 games. But then, this happened:
Stamkos, one of the best-conditioned athletes in any sport, recovered from his tibia and fibula injuries in record time. Despite projections for recovery being placed at nearly a year, Stamkos was practicing within three months and back in game situations within five. He finished the year with 25 goals in 37 games; not the same pace as he started by any means, but still very solid overall.
The next year, Stamkos was healthy, and while he didn’t keep up the same totals from prior years, he still managed to pick up 43 goals over a full 82 game season. This was enough to lead the Lightning in scoring once again, but he was perhaps overshadowed by the “triplets” line of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov; the former two prodigies of head coach Jon Cooper in Norfolk.
This became evident throughout the playoffs, as Cooper began to rely on the lower-profile scoring line as his go-to group while Stamkos’ matchups and even his position on the ice were shuffled about. Stamkos’ production stayed solid at 18 points over 23 games, but still wasn’t up to snuff; many pointed to his one assist in Tampa’s final eight playoff games as a reason why they were unable to defeat the Chicago Blackhawks.
If the reliance on the triplets wasn’t proof enough that the Lightning were content with moving forward without Stamkos, a second attempt at a trade surely points in that direction. James Mirtle reported this week that such an attempt was made at the draft with the Buffalo Sabres, though nothing materialized.
At the moment, Stamkos is in the midst of his worst season since he was a teenager; then again, the Bolts, on the whole, are struggling. The triplets have been injured and underperforming when healthy, many of the forwards have struggled to click, and Ben Bishop can only protect those in front of him for so long. Tampa still remains in the playoff picture, though if things don’t begin to turn around soon, that could go away as well.
So now we’re here. Seven years on, Stamkos has gone from being pushed around by a coach/management/ownership circus, to being pushed around by, well, a coach/management circus. You can, at least, give Jeff Vinnik credit for staying out of this mess, preferring to do his meddling by renovating the arena and investing in marketing the team.
But that doesn’t do Stamkos much good. In between this rock and a hard place lie some truly special seasons, and at just 25 years old, you have to imagine that Stamkos would like to keep that rolling. Stamkos has never been one to be public with his frustrations (unless you consider a pair of liked tweets), but if the concerns are enough to require an exit, he’s in total control; he has a no-movement clause for the rest of the year, and can sign for whoever he wants in six and a half months.