Through the first 35 games last season, Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos(notes) scored just four times. Shackled to the bench and not seeing much ice time under then-Lightning coach Barry Melrose, it wasn't the type of start the 2008 No. 1 overall pick was looking for, especially after a summer of hype by the Lightning through their "Seen Stamkos" promotion.
When Rick Tocchet replaced Melrose in November, it wasn't until mid-February when Stamkos began to be 'seen'. In his final 28 games, the Sarnia Sting alum potted 17 goals and finished with 23 on the year, six behind Vincent Lecavalier(notes).
With five minutes of added ice time this season compared to last, Stamkos is maturing before our eyes into a goal scorer and paying off the Lightning, who were on the verge of embarrassment last season watching their prized pick watch more hockey than play. Through Tampa's first 14 games, Stamkos is leading the team in scoring with 12 goals (six on the power-play) and five assists, including a goal in seven of his last eight games. His coming out party is helping Lightning fans from completely freaking out about Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis(notes) low goal totals.
So, why is Stamkos flourishing this season?
There's confidence, as teammate Ryan Malone(notes) explained, as well as the fact that he has a coach in Tocchet that is willing to allow his talent to grow, even through all of the growing pains that he may experience:
"He's a leader, a young leader for us,"
"He has his ups and downs, but he has bounce-back," Tocchet said. "He doesn't have a long period of bad games or bad shifts. He can bounce back and that's what I like about him. He can have a tough night, but he bounces back. He's resilient."
Stamkos' quick start is also making waves through Hockey Canada as Team Canada GM Steve Yzerman is trying to fill out his 23-man roster. Not invited to the orientation camp in Calgary this past August, Stamkos has put himself on the radar, but he's not ready to let himself think about Vancouver as he told Fanhouse's Susan Slusser:
"I wasn't thinking about it at the start of the season," Stamkos said of Vancouver 2010. "But with the start I've had and people talking about it, if I keep it up, a long-shot (selection) is a possibility. I'd love the opportunity to represent my country, but obviously my main focus right now is on this team and winning every night here."
Winning is something that Tampa's been doing a little better of this season. Currenrtly sitting ninth in the Eastern Conference with 15 points thanks to Stamkos and solid goaltending Antero Niittymaki(notes). If Lecavalier and St. Louis can find the back of the net again on a regular basis, the Lightning, the butt of jokes a year ago, could themselves valuable strides towards long-term success.