The message to defenders is identical to one on billboards that sprouted around Tampa after the Lightning chose the native of suburban Toronto with the first pick in the 2008 draft: SEEN STAMKOS? Early in his rookie season, the answer was: hardly. In a biblical mishandling of young talent, coach Barry Melrose made Stamkos almost as inert as Lot's wife. Melrose, who lasted 16 games, simply didn't think Stamkos was NHL-ready. Rick Tocchet, who succeeded Melrose, supported Stamkos but instituted a baffling strength program, in which the 18-year-old was supposed to miss periodic games in order to up the intensity of off-ice workouts. The sinewy 6'1", 188-pound Stamkos was scratched three times before going on a scoring jag. Tocchet's fitness program quietly vanished.
There is no doubting Stamkos's conditioning now. He has worked the past two summers with former teammate Gary Roberts, who mixes rigorous training with unapologetically healthy eating. (When you train with Scary Gary, it is a cry for kelp.) "At the end of a shift some guys'll fan or shoot it wide," Boucher says. "But Steven's in such good shape he can still whip the puck, can still make it happen."
Stamkos eventually should make things happen in Tampa Bay, currently fifth in the Eastern Conference and flying on the positive vibrations of new G.M. Steve Yzerman and the dynamic Boucher. That, of course, is the real difference between Stamkos and the NHL's twin support beams: Crosby's Penguins have won a Stanley Cup while Ovechkin's Capitals at least have won a Presidents' Trophy. Stamkos has yet to make the playoffs.
"I want to be that complete player, the guy who's out there in the last minute when we have a one-goal lead," he says. "Right now my face-offs are eating [at] me because I'm below 50 percent. I want to be known for doing more than one thing."
Certainly he has a shot at it.
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