The pain remains, and maybe that's a good thing for Steven Stamkos(notes). It's a reminder of where he's been, of what it takes to get where he wants to go. Call it a growing pain for a kid who quickly became a superstar scorer, who is entering his fourth NHL season already at age 21 and feels ready to be a leader for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Four months ago, the Bolts were playing in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final. Boston Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuk(notes) wound up and fired from the right point. The puck deflected off a stick, screamed past a leaping player and struck Stamkos smack dab on the nose.
"It wasn't fun," Stamkos said. "I think that's the kind of thing you fear as a hockey player, taking a slapshot to the face. But I guess I know what it feels like now."
He laughed. He can laugh now. But at the time he immediately dropped his stick and brought his hands up to his face. He fell onto his stomach and skidded to a stop as his right glove went flying. He got up before anyone could get to him, threw off his left glove and skated away holding his nose. But that almost seemed worse because he obviously knew it was bad, flipping off his helmet and charging down the tunnel.
He missed less than six minutes. He returned to the bench with a thick red streak running down the right side of his swollen nose and a full metal cage over his face instead of a plastic visor. No way was his going to miss any more time than absolutely necessary.
How could he? His general manager, Steve Yzerman, was legendary partly because of how he had grinded on a bum knee as the Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 2002. His linemate Martin St. Louis(notes) had taken a stick to the mouth in the first round against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and after having a double root canal and three damaged teeth cemented into his mouth, he had told reporters: "It's just teeth. It's no big deal."
This was just a nose, and this was the biggest game of his life. He didn't want to let anyone down. He didn't know when – or if – he would make it that far again.
"I was lucky," Stamkos said. "In the playoffs, the doctors come on the road with the team, so they were there and kind of snapped it back into place, and off I went."
He laughed. He can laugh now. But that night his nose wasn't the only thing broken. The Lightning lost, 1-0. Stamkos called it "heartbreaking" after the game, and it was gut-wrenching after that.
For a week, his right eye was swollen shut. For two weeks, he had two black eyes. In that same time frame, the Bruins – the team that had been only one goal better in Game 7 – went on to upset the Vancouver Canucks.
"It was emotional," Stamkos said. "You work so hard to get there, and then your season's done. Just to lose that way … it was tough, and then to see them win the Stanley Cup knowing that could have been you was tough as well. But it should motivate us for this year."
Asked how his nose felt now, he reached up and patted it.
"It's still a little tender if you touch certain areas," he said.
He didn't laugh.
* * * * *
Stamkos isn't the only one still sensitive. I made the mistake of asking St. Louis about losing some key pieces to last season's playoff run.
"Who's not there?" St. Louis responded.
"OK," St. Louis said. "So who else?"
"OK," St. Louis said. "So we lost one guy. I think you lose one guy, you can collectively fill that, and I always feel in the playoffs there's always a new guy coming in. So this year it will be somebody else. … No disrespect to Bergie – Bergie was a great player for us – but we're going to find a way."
There are reasons to be skeptical of the Lightning. Virtually everything Yzerman did as a rookie general manager worked out well, and even for the best GMs it doesn't always work out that way. The Bolts, who hadn’t made the playoffs three years in a row, won't surprise anyone anymore in general, and opponents will be better prepared for coach Guy Boucher's 1-3-1 system specifically. Goaltender Dwayne Roloson(notes) turns 42 on Oct. 12. St. Louis has already turned 36. The Eastern Conference could be tighter, with several competitors making off-season upgrades.
Even St. Louis acknowledges that. "It's hard to get success," he said. "It's harder to stay at that success level, and we know that. It's going to be very challenging for us this year."
But Yzerman and Boucher aren't the types to ease off after a little success, a common cause of sophomore slumps. Defenseman Eric Brewer(notes), acquired before the trade deadline last season, will be in the lineup from the start. Roloson has a new backup, former Edmonton Oilers teammate Mathieu Garon(notes), who can pick up some of the workload. St. Louis still looks capable of putting up big numbers in spite of the gray in his hair, and the rest of the core is still intact – Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier(notes), Victor Hedman(notes).
Asked if he thought his NHL roster was better than a year ago, Yzerman paused for a moment. He generally dislikes labeling anything like that. But he said changes happen every year for one reason or another, and then the first thing he mentioned was that "Stamkos is a year older." That could be a significant difference.
"We like to think we're going to be a better team this year," Yzerman said. "Whether we get to where we were last year or beyond that, I can't say that now. But we like to think we'll be a better team to start this season."
* * * * *
Stamkos hardly could start better than he did last season. He scored 21 goals in his first 22 games, and the NHL was buzzing about his chances to score 50 in 50. The Hockey News put him on the cover with the headline: "The NHL's NEW BEST PLAYER."
"Without a doubt," the magazine wrote, "Stamkos is the best offensive player in the NHL right now."
Well, the Penguins' Sidney Crosby(notes) got hot right about then, reclaiming the best-player title before suffering a season-ending concussion, and Stamkos finished the season cold. He scored only four goals in his final 22 regular-season games.
The silver lining was that he learned – or at least had it reinforced – that there is more to hockey than scoring. If you aren't putting the puck in the net, you have to win key faceoffs, win battles in the corners, win … well, win. That's the bottom line, by any means necessary.
Stamkos is going to score like a star again. He already has enough of a track record to be confident in that – 23 goals as a rookie in 2008-09; 51 the next season, tied with Crosby for the league lead; and 45 last season, despite that cold snap. He is known for his off-season workouts with former NHLer Gary Roberts(notes), so it seems unlikely he'll slack off.
But there is being a kid, and there is being a man. There is being a star, and there is being a winner. It is a metamorphosis many great players have made, and Stamkos might have started to make it in the playoffs – and not because he had six goals and 13 points in 18 games.
He said he knew something was different when Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik(notes) drilled him on his first postseason shift, but it took him about halfway through the Bolts' run "to really know what the game was all about and what you have to do to win at that level." He showed his teammates he was hardnosed before he took that puck in the face, before he came back with that full metal cage, before teammate Ryan Malone(notes) called him "a warrior."
"That's the prime example, but he took some big hits in the playoffs early on," St. Louis said. "I don't think he felt like he was 100 percent, but he played through it. … You need that. It's part of progression. It's part of maturing in this league. You have to experience that. Until you experience that, you know, you're just a good player in this league. [When] you go through that and have success through it and go far, you get some badges [of honor]. You reach a different level, and you're able to take your game to another level. You can't duplicate that experience."
Stamkos wants to be known for more than his wicked shot. "You don't want to be known as just an offensive guy," he said. He talked about being a two-way player. He talked about working his way up and earning the veterans' respect. He talked about being a leader, whether it's speaking up in the dressing room or just leading by example on the ice or in the gym. He feels he's ready, and fresh from signing a five-year, $37.5-million contract in the summer, he’s expected to be.
"He knows his place, and he knows that we're leaning on him to take a bigger role in that department,” St. Louis said. “But that's just not given to you. You earn that, that leadership. You need the respect from your teammates, which he has, and you have to earn that every year, which he will again this year. It's part of maturing, and he's on the right path."