Pierre-Edouard Bellemare embraces fresh start with Kraken

TAMPA – Pierre-Edouard Bellemare made his mark with the Lightning as the consummate locker room guy, a player who could lift his teammates with his ever-positive demeanor and genuine appreciation for playing the game.

But in finding a new home with the Seattle Kraken this season at age 38, Bellemare wants to show he still has more hockey left in him on the ice.

“It was not that something was wrong here in Tampa,” Bellemare said. “It was more like, ‘OK, how can I challenge myself to be more like I was a few years ago and instead of being maybe set back a little bit.”

In the first period of his first game back in Tampa with the Kraken, Bellemare was honored with a video tribute, and given a standing ovation by the Amalie Arena crowd. The Kraken ultimately escaped with a 4-3 overtime triumph.

Bellemare, who played an instrumental role in Tampa Bay the past two seasons as the team’s fourth-line center and a key penalty-killing forward, didn’t like the way last year went for him.

He scored just four goals — his fewest in six seasons — and was a minus-9 in 2022-23, a year after posting a plus-24 (tied for the best plus-minus among Lightning forwards that year) in his first season with the Lightning on a team that went to the Stanley Cup final.

Physically, he never felt right. He had knee surgery going into that season, and looking back, Bellemare said he probably rushed his way back. It took him much longer to get his legs under him, he said Monday before his first return to Tampa as a visiting player since last season.

And off the ice, he was emotionally elsewhere. He found out before the season opener that his mother’s cancer has resurfaced. Across the Atlantic in Bellemare’s native France, her health deteriorated, and she died in January. His perseverance earned him last season’s Tampa Bay nomination for the Masterton Award.

He signed with Seattle, a team that won its first playoff series last season in its third year of existence, in July (for the league-minimum $775,000) after the Lightning told him they weren’t going to re-sign him. From the roster to the system, Bellemare said Seattle offered him the opportunity to rebound from what he called a disappointing season in Tampa Bay.

“I wouldn’t say I’ve maybe been a little bit too complacent or satisfied, but I feel like they have a system where it’s demanding from each forward because of the fact that you don’t have maybe as many power names in the house,” Bellemare said. “Then every man on the roster has to contribute, skating-wise at least.

“The day I stop learning is the day that I will retire and this decision to come to Seattle was also, if I go there, they’re going to demand for me to skate way more. I’m not going to have a choice. Otherwise I’m not going to play and I feel like their system kind of forces me to skate way more. And that’s something that I wanted to learn back in a way.

“And it’s no offense to the system here, they have a good system and everything, but I feel like at times, because of those big names, you expect them to do the job, right? And I feel like in Seattle, they have big guys, but they’re not as star name-like and so the whole lineup has to produce, the whole lineup has to do the work and you’re going to be relied on every night.”

Bellemare, who emerged from having few resources and a tough home life growing up in France to debut in the NHL at the age of 29 after eight seasons in Sweden, has already made his presence felt.

“He brings a lot of leadership,” Kraken center and former Lightning player Yanni Gourde said. “He’s a very vocal guy. He brings a calm demeanor on the bench, which really helps this group.”

Notes: Lightning goaltender Jonas Johansson was named the NHL’s second star of the week after posting back-to-back shutouts in home wins over Carolina and San Jose. He stopped all 55 shots he faced in those games. ... The Lightning’s Community Hero program, founded in 2011 under owner Jeff Vinik, eclipsed $300 million in total grants on Monday. Over 13 seasons, the program has awarded 553 local champions and 748 different non-profit organizations.

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