If you’re superstitious, stop reading. If I’m superstitious, I should stop writing. The palms start to sweat when we utter things like, “Steven Stamkos,” “dominant,” “healthy” and “Olympics” in the same sentence.
Anyone feeling PTSD over Stamkos’ rollercoaster of career disappointments deserves a break. In 2013-14, he was ripping along with 14 goals in his first 17 games when a freak broken leg robbed of him a spot on Canada’s 2014 Olympic team. A blood clot held him to one game in the 2015-16 playoffs. An abdominal tear limited him to a thrilling two minutes and 47 seconds in Tampa’s 2019-20 Stanley Cup run, during which he scored a goal.
So, admittedly, it feels scary, reckless, even, to discuss Stamkos’ tremendous 2021-22 campaign roughly a month before Canada GM Doug Armstrong finalizes his team for 2022. But Stamkos, 31, has been too darned good to ignore. With a four-point effort in the Lightning’s 4-3 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs Thursday night, Stamkos is now tied with the Minnesota Wild’s Kirill Kaprizov for fifth in the NHL scoring race. Stamkos hasn’t charted as a top-five scorer in the NHL since 2012-13. And he’s doing it on a Lightning team missing many of its best forwards, from Nikita Kucherov (lower-body) to Brayden Point (upper-body) to, now, Anthony Cirelli (upper-body). The Bolts have been without Kucherov for two months and Point for multiple weeks, and Stamkos just keeps getting better.
“What’s probably most impressive about what’s going on now is how depleted we are up front,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper Thursday night. “You can throw around the, ‘Hey, next man up,’ attitude, but you need your big guys to step up, let’s be honest, and Stammer’s definitely done that, and good on him. Because, when you’ve had some of the injuries he’s had, whether it was missing the playoff run in our first Stanley up year, or in 2016 when he was out for most of those playoffs, that wears on you. You don’t have a ton of time in this league, and your body has to heal. Just because you’re back on the ice one game after you’re hurt doesn’t mean you’re healthy. But he was a big part of our Stanley Cup win last year, he got time to get healthy over the summer, and he’s really taken off, so good on him.”
In 5-on-5 play this season, the Lightning have been outchanced and outshot with Stamkos on the ice, but they’ve outscored their opponents significantly because Stamkos and his linemates make their chances count. He’s scoring on 20 percent of his shots this season, and that hardly feels anomalous when he converts at 17 percent for his career. Among active players with 500-plus career games, only Leon Draisaitl fires the biscuit more accurately.
So what’s fuelling Stamkos’ superhuman effort in 2021-22? Is it simply the pressure of keeping the back-to-back defending champs afloat with so many stars hurt? Maybe, but it’s not the external kind of pressure.
“I don’t think there could be any more pressure than what I put on myself,” he said “We know we’re missing some good players, some key offensive players. But it’s the way it is, unfortunately. I’ve been on both sides of that, and nobody’s going to feel sorry for our group – because of the success we’ve had – that we’ve had guys out of the lineup. So it’s up to us.”
Another match lighting Stamkos’ fire this season, of course, is the Olympic dream. Fate has yet to let it happen in his career. And Stamkos, never one to deflect or ignore the obvious, acknowledges that Beijing looms large.
“It’s extra motivation for sure,” he said. “I talked about it a lot before the year, that it was a goal of mine. I’m not going to lie and say I haven’t thought about it. Certainly one of the greatest honors you can have is representing your country…but first and foremost, I’ve got to out there and play for my team here in Tampa. It’s a cliché, but you just let your play do the talking for you. You can’t control what people are saying, or (what lineups people are) are putting together, or, ‘This guy’s on whatever.’ Let’s just go out there and play. At the end of the day, I wanted to put myself back in that conversation by being healthy and playing well. If I’m doing that, that’s great. We’ve got some time left here, but it’s been a fun season so far to go out there and produce and help my team win.”
It sure seems like Stamkos is an important tool to help Canada win. He’d be one of the older forwards on the team, joining a cohort including Sidney Crosby, and, almost certainly, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, but Stamkos would bring particularly meaningful value to the power play. Peruse all the mock-Canada lists and you get loaded teams, no doubt, but if there’s one thing Canada isn’t rich in, it’s pure goal-scorers who shoot right-handed. Stamkos on the half boards a-la Alex Ovechkin gives Canada a look no one else can and will force opponents to defend differently.
It’s thus a fair bet to picture ‘Stammer’ on Canada. Of course, the cruelest twist of fate would be for NHLers to pull out of the Winter Games for COVID-19 concerns just when Stamkos finally reaches an Olympic window feeling healthy. Cross your fingers.