It’s the second day of November and Steven Stamkos leads the NHL in points, yet he’s not talking about being in the best shape of his life. Instead, the Tampa Bay Lightning star revealed to Sportsnet recently that injuries have taken such a toll over the years that he doubts he’ll “ever feel 100 percent again.”
Stamkos has returned on fire from a leg injury that limited him to just 17 games last season. He’s partnered with Nikita Kucherov to record six goals and 18 assists for a league-high 24 points. It’s the league’s best line on a team that’s won 10 of its first 13 games.
But rather than an indication that Stamkos, at age 27, is back in peak physical form, he says the strong start is a reflection of how he’s learned to work with his body even as it’s declined. He’s had two major leg injuries now, and while he’s still athletic enough to be an NHL star, it’s not the same as when he was fully healthy in his early 20s.
“There’s definitely some limitations in certain movements,” Stamkos said. “I think I’m always going to be stuck with that, this leg with the broken leg and the metal rod that’s in there and now with knee surgery. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel 100 percent again, but it’s just getting to that new norm where you’re just going out and playing and not worrying about it and trusting the work you’ve put in. I think that’s where I’m at and for me that’s a good place right now.”
Stamkos made changes to his training regimen over the summer that appear to have worked wonders. The former 60-goal scorer has also embraced more of a playmaking role in Tampa Bay next to Kucherov and Vladislav Namestnikov, even though he insisted to Sportsnet that he had not changed his approach on the ice.
Maybe the exceptional numbers are just a side benefit of Kucherov’s emergence as one of the premier scoring wingers in the world. Or maybe Stamkos really is taking his game to another level regardless of the presence of a superstar next to him, as noted by Sporting News’ Andrew Berkshire.
It’s tempting for many who saw Kucherov’s ascendance over the last couple of years to shortchange Stamkos a bit here and say it’s the younger player driving play here. There might be some truth to that offensively, as Kucherov’s shooting percentage in the early season is sky high with 13 goals in 13 games. But when it comes to driving possession, it’s been Stamkos running the show.
That evolution from Stamkos from superlative scorer into a more well-rounded player, something we’ve seen from other superstars such as Steve Yzerman over the years, is a potential game-changer for Tampa Bay. It’s also a reflection of how he’s been forced to alter his play to compensate for changes that come along with getting older.
The strong start is a crucial development for the Lightning, who have Stamkos locked up on one of the league’s biggest deals. Even if he’ll never quite get back to 100 percent again — something that plagues many NHL players who have logged hundreds of games and taken the beating that comes with it — he’s playing at such a high level that it may not matter. The real concern for the Lightning here is in the future. If he’s already saying this at age 27, and he’s signed another six years, it’s fair to wonder where his body (and mind) will be at by 2022 or 2023. But for a win-now team, that’s a thought for another day.
The Lightning re-signed Stamkos to try to win a Stanley Cup after falling short against the Blackhawks in 2015. He returned to Tampa Bay looking to do the same, and now the Bolts look like prime contenders in the Eastern Conference with one of the most impressive superstar cores assembled in the league.
Stamkos is a big part of that, even if he’s never going to be 100 percent again.