Darren Eliot
Monday March 8th, 2010

Currently, the NHL has three 40-goal scorers: Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and...Steven Stamkos.

That's right. Steven Stamkos -- the Tampa Bay Lightning's 20-year-old second-year center. He's currently riding a 16-game point streak in which he has amassed 20 points. And, yes, he is now part of the 40-goal fraternity.

Not that this should surprise anyone. Stamkos has always been a gifted goal-scorer. He netted 105 for the Markham Waxers at the midget level before potting 100 more for the Sarnia Sting during two seasons of junior hockey in the OHL -- not including 11-playoff tallies during his second season. Drafted first overall by Tampa Bay in 2008, much was expected of the highly-touted prodigy, but a disappointing and deflating slowdown in production ensued when the Lightning's new coach, Barry Melrose, meted out minutes to the 18-year-old rookie in a miserly fashion. Let's just say that was one of many miscalculations made by Mr. Melrose during his 16-game tenure.

Since the middle of last season, Stamkos has seen more ice and he's been scoring in his usual productive fashion. He finished with 23 goals as a rookie and has never looked back to that dark beginning of his NHL career. He now leads the league in power play goals (16), and his wicked one-time slapshot from the top of the left face-off circle is a staple of the Bolts' man-advantage strategy. And why not? Even when goalies know it's coming, Stamkos' shot is so potent, it gets past them anyway. His puck-pounding prowess has relegated Vinny Lecavalier -- remember him? -- to third option status on the PP.

From afar, his 40-goal stature might surprise, but up close, the development of Stamkos' all-around game is what stands out. Current coach Rick Tocchet plays the youngster in all situations, both offensively and defensively. Stamkos is also seen on the penalty kill with Marty St. Louis. In fact, Stamkos and St. Louis play in all situations together and it's hard to tell who has had the greater impact on the other.

Certainly, Stamkos benefits from St. Louis' speed and experience. St. Louis seems re-energized playing with the sensational sophomore. I say that because, as breathtaking a breakthrough as it has been for Stamkos this season, he still doesn't lead Tampa Bay in scoring or time-on-ice among their forwards. St. Louis does on both counts -- his 78 points and 21:43 TOI are both fourth overall in the entire NHL. Only Ovechkin, Henrik Sedin and Crosby have scored more points, and Ilya Kovalchuk, Anze Kopitar and Ryan Getzlaf play more on a nightly basis. In other words, St. Louis is near his Hart Trophy-winning form of 2004 now that he has a new running mate in Stamkos.

Not to dismiss St. Louis' old buddy, Lecavalier, because Stamkos still looks inexperienced in the face-off circle, where he is just over 46 percent effective. Lecavalier is at more than 53 percent in face-off efficiency. The Lightning with St. Louis, Stamkos and Lecavalier look like Tampa Bay's 2003-04 Cup team that had Brad Richards as part of a trio of offensive threats. Now Stamkos has emerged, and the main differences are in his dynamic skating and competitiveness. He reminds me of Steve Yzerman in so many ways, and that impression grows each time I see Stamkos play.

When you think about it, Stamkos could easily be an Yzerman selection on the next version of Team Canada if the NHL participates in the 2014 Winter Olympics. That's also assuming that Yzerman retains the reins of Canada's selection process. Stamkos has won gold for Canada as a member of its 2007 World Junior team and he played extremely well in last spring's World Championships. During the recent Olympics, he was just a fan.

"I went home for a week and just relaxed," he says. "I watched the Olympics and for the Gold Medal game, I had a few of the guys over to watch. It was great hockey. Intense. We got pretty loud."

Right now, the noise surrounding Stamkos is the buzz that his superb play has generated. Talk about buying right for new owner Jeff Vinik. He has a team that still might make the playoffs, a fan base that has proven it will come out and support the Lightning, and legacy veterans St. Louis and Lecavalier from the Cup team.

Best of all, young Steven Stamkos is only beginning to fulfill the great expectations that greeted his arrival in the league two years ago.

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