Rookie Stamkos, cool and collected, says ice time, goals will come
TORONTO -- The large media horde, some 40 or so, arrived in the visitors dressing room at Air Canada Centre on Tuesday, waiting to grill the fresh meat that is 18-year-old Steven Stamkos.
The 2008 first overall pick had arrived in his hometown without an NHL point, let alone a goal, in his first seven regular-season games.
Like an NHL veteran 15 years his senior, however, Stamkos handled the media crush with impressive dexterity and coolness. At least on the outside, there were no visible signs of cracks in his confidence, no frustration or impatience.
The goals and the points would come, he assured three waves of media questioners.
"You just have to stay positive," said Stamkos, looking every media member straight in the eye. "Obviously, the media will put some pressure on, but I put the most pressure on myself. As of right now, I'm just trying to stay positive and keep working hard. Guys go through these things and you just have to get out of it somehow, and hopefully it starts going after that."
Much has already been made of the first pick's early-season struggles and his lack of ice time under first-year Lightning coach Barry Melrose. Stamkos ranked 46th among NHL rookies before Wednesday night's games with an average ice time of 11 minutes, 10 seconds.
"He's usually around 13, last game he played 15," Melrose said Tuesday.
Three times Stamkos has played less than 10 minutes, including a season-low 6:05 in Tampa's home opener Oct. 11. That sparked the first batch of media reports on the subject. Melrose has involved Stamkos more in recent games, playing him 13:56, 11:30 and 13:57 in the three games, respectively, before Tuesday's encounter with the Maple Leafs.
"A lot of it depends on the penalties we take because he doesn't kill penalties," said Melrose. "We know if he gets one [goal], he's going to take off. He's playing good. That's what people can't understand; they think if he's not scoring, he must be playing terrible. Well, that's not the case at all."
More ice time could be coming.
"I wanted to start playing him more on the power play, maybe a little bit of point on the second unit and forward on first unit," said Melrose. "Don't worry, we're trying to get him his first goal, too."
Three stalls down from Stamkos, team captain Vincent Lecavalier was asked by the same media contingent about the rookie's struggles. After all, it was Lecavalier, a fresh-faced 18-year-old taken first overall, who had the world on his shoulders as he tried to pick up the sad-sack franchise on his shoulders 10 years ago.
"The team isn't playing at its best, so I think that's tough for Steven, too," said Lecavalier. "It's not like we're scoring 6-7 goals a night, you know? If we did, then he'd probably have 6-7 goals by now. He's playing the way he should. He had his best games against the Rangers in Europe. He was flying and hit a few posts. After that, he played a little bit less and now he's back to 11-12-13 minutes. He's playing more, so he'll get more opportunities. Once he scores that first goal, that confidence is going to be there. He's doing all the right things. It'll come."
Lecavalier later added that he didn't play much in his first NHL season, either.
"I think the first half of the year I was like between eight and 10 minutes. I think I finished out with an average between 12 and 13 [13:40 to be exact]," said Lecavalier.
Not that he was making a big deal about it, but Lecavalier himself would like to play a bit more. Asked by TSN play-by-play announcer Chris Cuthbert about his recent ice time, which included a season-low 16:38 on Saturday, Lecavalier calmly but directly let his feelings be known.
"It's definitely a change," said the center. "I would like to play more -- and I like to play more. I want to get 20 minutes in there, or 21 minutes. A lot of people say we played too much last year, like 24 [minutes], and I understand that. It's a lot of minutes. But 20, 21 minutes, I think would be a good number."
Lecavalier was averaging 19:31 for the season before Tuesday's game, down from the nearly 23 minutes he averaged last season. Many nights, he played more than 24 minutes.
"The more you play, the more you're in the game," said Lecavalier. "I'm so used to always being back out there and being in the game. When you play 16, 17 minutes, it's a little tougher to do."
Melrose and the coaching staff made no secret before the season that they wanted to bring down Lecavalier's minutes just a bit, believing he got worn down last season. He was fourth among all NHL forwards in ice time in 2007-08, behind only teammate Martin St. Louis, former teammate Brad Richards and Washington star Alex Ovechkin. Plus, Lecavalier is still rebuilding his shoulder strength after offseason surgery.
"The shoulder is getting there. It's still pretty sore," said Lecavalier. "The strength isn't there. Throughout the year, I'll do some weight-lifting to get it stronger. It takes a while. It feels good on the ice, though, when I'm handling the puck. But I still got to get it stronger."
In the meantime, he's not too concerned for Stamkos. Lecavalier hasn't found the need to take him aside and chat with him about it yet.
"We all have pressure," said Lecavalier. "He seems to block it out. He always comes in with a smile. That's the type of guy he is. I'm not worried about him. If he was coming in with his head down, we could have these big talks, but he's always in a good mood, always upbeat and working hard. He's doing all the right things."
Melrose echoed his captain's confidence in the rookie.
"He's getting shots. He's playing really good in our end. He's getting chances, hitting crossbars, he's had breakaways," Melrose said. "I think as an organization, if he wasn't getting any chances, we'd be worried. But he's getting tons of chances. So, you know, it's going to come. He's a great kid, he's got a great shot, he's a great skater.
"All I ask of him is to compete every night, and he's done that."
If there are any issues between coach and player, Stamkos certainly wasn't letting on.
"He's a great coach, he's a motivator, he keeps everything positive on the bench," said Stamkos. "He's a players' coach.
"The guys are great, the coaching staff has been outstanding. I couldn't have asked for a better situation to come in. I'm learning."
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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