Takin' a T/O With BT: Are We Starting To "See" Steven Stamkos?

xx yySenior Writer IJanuary 29, 2009

There were posters, there were bumper stickers, there were tube-tops and t-shirts, there were ads everywhere you could think of; there was even a website.

All of this was devoted to a man who, not only hadn't played in a single NHL game yet, but was yet to sign his first NHL contract.

That is the life of a first overall draft pick in today's NHL. That is what had become of Steve Stamkos.

Like any first overall draft pick and any team picking first overall, it was two very different tales and very different attitudes.

The Tampa Bay Lightning had fallen fast and fallen hard since the lockout. In 2003/04 they were Stanley Cup Champions for the first time, just 12 years after they entered the league.

To put that in perspective, only the Edmonton Oilers (Five years), Philadelphia Flyers (Seven years), and New York Islanders (eight years) had done it faster since the 1967 expansion.

Sidenote: For the purposes of that last stat we looked at franchises who didn't relocate prior to winning the cup. Edmonton could be argued either way seeing as their first season in the NHL was 1979/80, but they had been an established franchise prior to that season in the WHA.

The Dallas Stars won a cup six seasons after moving from Minnesota, while the Colorado Avalanche won during their first season in Denver. Calgary also won nine years after moving from Atlanta.

The season following the lockout (2005/06), the Lightning lost their division crown, finishing second in the Southeast Division to the Carolina Hurricanes. The Lightning also lost their opportunity to defend their crown early on, as they were dispatched by the Ottawa Senators in five games, and being outscored 23-13.

The following year the Lightning couldn't capitalize on an off-year from the 'Canes as Atlanta swept in and took the crown away from Tampa. While the Lightning did well to win two games against the stingy Devils, driven by the strong goaltending of Martin Brodeur, it was another early exit for the Lightning.

While many were disappointed with the Lightning's post-lockout showing, few considered it grounds for the team to fall apart come 2007/08. The team had shortcomings (Second-most goals allowed amongst the top 12 teams in the East in 06/07), but many expected the Lightning to have a shot—especially under the leadership of Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, and Martin St. Louis.

That wasn't the case though.

By the end of 2007/08 the Lightning had put forth their worst season since 2001/02 with 71 points. The team barely had their head above water on home ice and seemed to hit a brick wall when they went on the road.

Amidst a year that saw the Lightning allow the second-most goals in the league (267) the house-cleaning had started mid-season. Brad Richards and Johan Holmqvist were sent packing in hopes that Mike Smith could be the goalie of the future, Jeff Halpern could offer some leadership through the tough times, and Jussi Jokinen could spark the offense.

Some hoped that the Lightning would turn into the next installment of the 2007/08 Philadelphia Flyers—the team that had gone from worst to first, rags to riches, and rotten to ritzy in just a few months.

The acquisition of Steve Stamkos cemented that hope for many.

Going into the draft, there questions abound has to who the Lightning—after winning the NHL's Draft Lottery—would select. The crop of quality young defensemen was overflowing with Drew Doughty, Luke Schenn, Zach Bogosian, Tyler Myers, and Alex Pietrangelo causing quite a stir, but some wondered if the spot amongst the 'Big Three' vacated by the Brad Richards trade had opened the door for a forward.

The aformentioned 'Seen Stamkos' campaign put all that to rest before the Lightning even took to the podium though, sending the 'Bay into a frenzy over the much-hyped forward from the OHL.

The anticipation for Stamkos was buoyed by the success of recent First Overall choices: Patrick Kane was the OHL's Rookie of the Year and runner-up for MVP (to John Tavares) award in 2006/07 and led the league in scoring with 145 points, one year later he won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie; the year before that, it was the highly touted Erik Johnson of the St Louis Blues who amassed 33 points in 69 games in his first season, also in 2007/08.

The two years preceding those two? Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.

Needless to say, an OHL kid who was picked first overall following up a 58-goal, 100-point season? Failure wasn't an option.

The Lightning did all they could from then on to stock the cupboard for Stamkos as well. Gary Roberts and Mark Recchi were brought in for their veteran presence and no-doubt Roberts' stringent workout routine.

Adam Hall, Brandon Bochenski, and the suddenly-scoring Radim Vrbata were brought in to round out the roster as well, while Dan Boyle's hefty contract, Brad Lukowich, Filip Kuba, and Alexandre Picard were shed from the roster.

As the curtain rose on the Lightning's season and Stamkos' career in the Czech Repulic against the New York Rangers, many expected a show that they waited for.

And waited...

And waited....

As was well-documented, Steven struggled early and often in the early stages of this season: His first point didn't come until his eighth game, he only had four points in his first seventeen games, his ice-time was wavering back and forth under Head Coach Barry Melrose, and the 6"0', 170 lbs kid from Markham was simply getting dominated at every stop.

It was because of that though, that Head Coach Barry Melrose refused to increase Stamkos' ice time, stating that he "wasn't going to give a guy ice time just because he's the number one pick".

Many feel that it was because of that attitude that led to Melrose's dismissal.

Following Melrose's November 14th firing, the idea was things were going to get better and for a while, they did. Stamkos had three points in Rich Tocchet's first three games behind the Lightning bench, but his ice-time was still floundering, sometimes lower than what Melrose had set for him.

Whatever it was, the streaks continued though: a three-game pointless streak here, a five-game pointless streak there, all of that provoked people to start whispering the 'B' word when Stamkos would come up in conversation.


How exactly a kid becomes a "bust" in his first year I'll never know—especially when some players are given four or five years to develop in the AHL and never turn into the promised player, but no one ever says that about them.

With everyone drooling over the NHL's next biggest flop, Rich Tocchet did something bold:

He instituted a plan for Steven Stamkos.

Go figure. A plan to develop a N.1 overall pick. How novel.

Following that five-game pointless streak, Stamkos was benched for one game to gather his wits.

In his return? He got an assist in a 3-1 win over Drew Doughty and the Los Angeles Kings. The next game, a goal against the San Jose Sharks, followed by an assist in his next against the Philadelphia Flyers.

A game off and three games later, Steven Stamkos has finally started to produce with five points in his last six games and a plus-five rating.

Now that's a little more like it.

As the Lightning begin the last few months of the season, the schedule's getting a little heavier—starting tonight (Jan. 29th) the Lightning have three sets of back-to-back games in the next month—and the games are going to get more meaningful as the Lightning look for a way to keep them out of the Eastern Conference basement for a second straight year.

But with the performance of Steven Stamkos steadily improving, one has to wonder if we've seen the real Stamkos yet'.

Maybe we have, and maybe we haven't.

Just don't count the kid out yet.

Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer and an NHL Community Leader for Bleacher Report. If you want to get in contact with Bryan you can do so through his profile, and you can also check out all of his previous work in his archives.


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