Will Steven Stamkos Reach His Full Potential with the Tampa Bay Lightning?
The rise of Steven Stamkos from a No. 1 overall draft pick to one of the league's 10 best players has been a swift one.
He became the third-fastest player to score 200 NHL goals in March, and in his last 208 games, the Tampa Bay Lightning forward has tallied 132 goals, which is the most of anyone since the start of the 2010-11 season.
However, with Stamkos struggling to score goals in April, the Lightning will miss the playoffs for the fourth time in his five-year career with the club. The 23-year-old has scored just two goals in Tampa Bay's 10 games in April thus far, so it's no surprise that the team's record this month is 2-5-3.
Stamkos is a remarkable player who has yet to reach the prime of his career, but will he ever reach his full potential with the Lightning?
After coming up one win short of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, the Lightning have gone from a promising team with a bright future, to one in transition that is rebuilding on the fly.
Goaltending has been a major issue for the franchise following that deep playoff run two years ago. Anders Lindback has been a disappointment since he was acquired for draft picks last summer, which forced general manager Steve Yzerman to use more valuable assets to make a move for young netminder Ben Bishop of the Ottawa Senators on trade deadline day.
Yzerman has failed to build a blue line with enough depth and defensive skill, while also failing to add enough young talent at forward. He's taken some risks high in the draft with the first-round selections of Brett Connolly (No. 6, 2010) and Slater Koekkoek (No. 10, 2012).
Tampa Bay has also had five head coaches during Stamkos' tenure with the club (which began in 2007-08), and the last two hires (Guy Boucher and Jon Cooper) did not have previous head coaching experience at the NHL level.
Looking at how the team is currently constructed and what its future looks like at the moment, if Stamkos and the Lightning don't improve over the next few years, the young star may feel that to take his talents to the next level, leaving Tampa Bay might be the best option for him as an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2016.
One of the goals for Cooper in his first full season with the team will be to improve the defensive aspect of Stamkos' game, because developing into a more effective two-way player is the most effective way to help the superstar forward join Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Jonathan Toews among the top tier of centers in the NHL.
Stamkos has 28 giveaways, a lackluster 49.8 faceoff percentage and a plus-minus rating of minus-7 this season. He's not a terrible defensive forward, but there is still plenty of room for growth in this area of his game. The Lightning's issues on the blue line create a need for a better defensive performance from the forwards.
From an offensive standpoint, becoming a more consistent player is also a goal for Stamkos. All pure goal scorers are streaky, but Stamkos had 25 goals in his first 34 games of 2013, and in his last 10 games, he's found the back of the net just twice.
He still ranks second in the league in goals scored with 27, but this kind of inconsistency is a problem for a Lightning team that doesn't have the goaltendng strength or defensive talent to overcome a prolonged Stamkos slump.
Finding more wingers who complement Stamkos and also help him score goals will be a priority for Yzerman over the next two years. Martin St. Louis has been fantastic this season with 53 points (T-2nd in the NHL with Stamkos) at 37 years old, but he doesn't have too many spectacular years left in his career.
Will Stamkos reach his full potential with TB?
St. Louis' playmaking ability has played a huge part in Stamkos' goal-scoring success over the last three seasons. The veteran winger's speed, passing skills and vision create so many quality scoring chances for his young center, and their chemistry is also excellent.
Seventeen of Stamkos' 27 goals have been assisted by St. Louis, and the team's lack of talented wingers at the NHL/AHL/CHL levels is a genuine concern. Stamkos would be a top goal scorer without a playmaking winger like St. Louis, but it's going to be difficult for Yzerman to replace the former Hart Trophy winner.
Every great center needs at least one winger who can score goals or create offense for his linemates, and when St. Louis retires, Tampa Bay won't have this kind of player in their top-six forward group.
The Lightning need Richard Panik and top prospect Nikita Kucherov to develop into quality wingers at the NHL level for Stamkos to have some help in the future. Panik has played well as a rookie in 2013 with nine points in 22 games, while Kucherov has 53 points in 27 games for the QMJHL's Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. These two forwards are talented, but expecting them to be first-line players before Stamkos' current contract ends is unfair.
One of the best ways for a player to reach his full potential is to get plenty of playoff experience, because the intensity of the postseason brings out the best in the elite players. The Lightning's run to the Eastern Conference Final in 2010-11 is the only time Stamkos has tasted the playoffs in his NHL career.
Toews, Crosby and many of the league's best young players have become stronger leaders and more productive at both ends of the ice because of their playoff experiences. Sitting at home and watching the playoffs from his couch is not going to help Stamkos reach his full potential.
The Lightning will be better next season than they were this year, the question is how much of an improvement we will see. The core of the team, which is made up of several aging veterans at forward and on the blue line, are at the end or past the prime of their careers.
Tampa Bay relies too much on Stamkos and St. Louis to carry the team. There's not enough depth at forward and there aren't any elite prospects with enormous offensive talent on the way. The Lightning are also the only team in the NHL outside of a playoff spot with a positive or even-goal differential.
Will TB make the playoffs next year?
When realignment changes the format of the NHL's conferences and divisions next season, Tampa Bay will no longer have the luxury of playing in the Southeast Division, which has proven to be the worst division in the NHL over the last two years.
The Lightning will move into a division that includes the Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings, Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators. All of those teams will be playoff contenders for the foreseeable future. Reaching the postseason over the next couple seasons is not going to be easy for Tampa Bay.
Right now, it's unlikely that Stamkos will reach his full potential with the Lightning. When the veteran core retires or leaves via free agency, retirement or trades, there won't be much top talent to build a legitimate Stanley Cup contender around the 23-year-old superstar. It also doesn't help that the Lightning have seven players with salary cap hits of $4 million or more for at least two more seasons, per Capgeek.
Stamkos is one of the NHL's best players, but if he is going to reach the level of Crosby and Toews, it won't be done in Tampa Bay. Constantly playing in a losing environment isn't helping him become a top-three NHL player.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs in Boston.
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