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The Best Leader in the NHL

Photo credit: Wayne Masut

Hard to believe it’s been 15 years since Tampa Got Steven Stamkos. The number one pick in the NHL draft back in 2008 by the Lightning has come a long way. Through a decade and a half, we’ve had a front row seat to a first ballot hall of fame career. The latest testament to his leadership occurred this week with Stamkos winning the Mark Messier Leadership Award. 

We have been fortunate to have witnessed such an incredible performance from this phenomenal individual. Tampa has seen some amazing professional athletes play here. The recent successes from the city’s three professional sports teams provided our town with a new moniker: Champa Bay!  It isn’t hyperbole to say that Stamkos is a shoe-in for the Sports Mount Rushmore of Tampa Bay. 

It’s a resume that is quite familiar to all Lightning fans. Two Stanley Cups in four Cup appearances. Seven Conference Finals appearances, winning four of those. We’ve seen 515 regular season goals and 541 assists for 1056 points in 1003 games. Stamkos also is the longest tenured captain in Lightning history. Ten of his fifteen years playing here, he’s been the captain. The leader of the band. We’ve seen hundreds of examples of why the man was just named the best leader in the entire league

Highs and Lows

It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. We remember that day in Boston. Not that day, the other day in Boston. During Game 7 of the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals. We got our first  glimpse of the character he possesses. Johnny Boychuk let go a slap shot from the point. Marty St. Louis got just the toe of his stick on the puck. Unfortunately, this tipped the shot ever so slightly and the puck made a beeline for Stamkos’ nose. 

When it made contact with Stamkos, his nose exploded. Skating off the ice, we were certain we saw the last of Stamkos for that game, that season. Boy, did we misjudge him. He came back in that game. Full cage mask that showed the two portions of his nose hanging on for dear life. The kid came back in that game. Ultimately, the Lightning lost that Game 7. So, Stamkos comes back from that Boychuk blast through that loss and the subsequent handshake line. We may not have realized it at the time, but the kid was showing us the man he was to be.  

Growing Up in the NHL

He was 21 at the time. Looking back at it now, we were so naive about our future Captain. Little did we know that was just a sign of things to come. We should have seen it. After his rookie season, Stamkos sought out training from former Lightning player and workout standout Gary Roberts. We all began to see the benefits even from the 300 level. Scoring 51 goals in his sophomore season showed us what this kid would do to achieve his goals. More evidence to his overall makeup was him scoring 60 goals two seasons after his 51 goal season. He was growing up right in front of us. 

Then there was that other day in Boston in November of 2013. Ugh. Stamkos broke his leg crashing into a goal post. Just like that, the season for Stamkos and the Lightning were stopped in their tracks. We were told most likely we would not see Stamkos the rest of that season. Two weeks after breaking his leg, Stamkos was walking without crutches or even a boot. He worked his ass off rehabilitating the broken leg. That’s the stuff of leaders. The stuff of leaders of men.

When he returned in March before the end of that season, he was named Captain of the team. His line mate and predecessor in the captaincy, Marty St. Louis had been traded to the New York Rangers. Those were big shoes for Stamkos to fill. Just following in the captain shoes of St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier and Dave Andreychuk was enormous. In addition to this, the team was turning the corner and seemed primed to go on a dynastic run. 

Captain, Our Captain

In his first full season as captain, Stamkos led his team to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015. May not seem like a lot but during that season, the Lightning were the youngest team in the league. Hell, even in the Cup Final, they had a two games to one lead over Chicago after three games. Though the Blackhawks came back to win that Final, it was the dawn of an incredible Lightning run. All with Stamkos at the leadership helm. 

Even off the ice, we’ve seen leadership from Stamkos. In 2016, as he was about to become a free agent, he signed an 8-year deal to stay with Tampa. Without any doubts, he could have received far more from other teams than what he signed to stay. As leaders of men do, he thought beyond what was good for him but also what was good for his team. His taking less than his market value to stay, led others on the team to follow suit in subsequent years.  

Victor Hedman followed Stamkos’ lead and took a team friendly deal. Then Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy. Followed by Brayden Point and others. All of these stellar performers in their own right, following their leader. And followed him they did. We know the rest of this story. Three straight Cup Finals winning two consecutive Cups. 

Best Leader in the League

Even during the Cup runs we saw the leader Stamkos has become. During the 2020 Playoffs, Stamkos had been injured. In fact, he hadn’t played a game in those playoffs. Still, his team found themselves facing the Dallas Stars in the Stanley Cup Final. During the first two Final games Stamkos had not played. In the warmups for Game 3, Stamkos was on the ice. Is he ready? Is it a smokescreen? Will he play? 

Playing just 2:47 in Game 3, Stamkos scored a goal on his first and only shot of the game. The lift those 167 seconds gave his team, carried them to winning the Final. Hoisting the Stanley Cup for the second time in franchise history. 

Being awarded the Messier Trophy came to no surprise to the Lightning fan base. We have seen this apple cheeked kid grow. From that 18 year-old #1 draft pick to the grizzled veteran. To the guy many think is the best captain in the league. It is gratifying for Lightning fans to see the entire hockey world recognize what we’ve known for years. Steven Stamkos is the best leader in the NHL.

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