The best pure shooter in hockey today is Steven Stamkos, whose scoring prowess is lifting Tampa Bay into the ranks of the contenders in the East
The hottest stick in hockey was packed quickly, stowed in an equipment bag and carted onto the waiting truck. There was no magic in the wand last Saturday in Buffalo—no goals, not even a measly assist—but there was the not insignificant matter of a 2--1 Lightning win, so the sleek black stick that had produced a hat trick two nights earlier in Philadelphia would be retained for at least one more game.
Steven Stamkos is not as superstitious as he is rational: He needs a better reason to change than a game in which he was held without a point. He scored 51 goals last season with a red Bauer supreme one95 model stick, tying for the NHL lead with Sidney Crosby (a Reebok guy, by the way), but understood that in his role as "the face of Bauer sticks"—the hands, actually, he would be obliged to switch to the company's top-of-the-line supreme totalone for 2010--11. Still, at the start of the season Stamkos stubbornly clung to a half dozen of the old red sticks he had husbanded. (All his models have a pronounced toe curve and a 95 flex in the shaft, whippy but nothing like Alex Ovechkin's palm-tree-in-a-hurricane 75 flex.) Stamkos finally made the switch when he broke the last old stick in October, and the transition has been seamless: one hat trick with the old and another with the new, a corollary to the adage that it is a poor craftsman who blames his tools.
In his third season, at age 20, Stamkos, who leads the NHL with 19 goals and 34 points, is claiming his place alongside or even atop Crosby and Ovechkin. From Feb. 17, 2009, through Sunday, Stamkos has 86 goals, nine more than Crosby and 11 more than Ovechkin, the plow horses dragging hockey into plain sight in the 21st century.
Of course, Stamkos really already had found his place: the left face-off circle.
Study a shot chart of the center's goals since 2009--10. The left circle, around the face-off dot, looks like a Google Earth picture of a shopping mall on Black Friday. He scored 22 from that circle last season, five so far this year. Coach Guy Boucher emphasizes mobility on the Lightning's amoeba of a power play, and Stamkos, a righthanded shot, indeed pops up in the slot, or on the right side, practically everywhere. Ten of his 19 goals in 20 games have come from below the circles—so-called "dirty areas"—which underscores that hockey's best pure shooter is improving as an impure shooter. (Stamkos had five tip-in goals last season, but his first two goals this year came on deflections.) Clearly his sublime hand-eye coordination can produce tip-ins, but that's like saying Pavarotti could also sing Happy Birthday. He is a goal scorer, with one noteworthy distinction. Like Wayne Gretzky's "office" behind the net, Stamkos's playpen is the left dot, launching pad for hockey's biggest weapon—his one-timer.
"He's kinda claimed that spot that was reserved for [Brendan] Shanahan, Ovechkin and myself," says Brett Hull, 46, who scored 741 career goals. "I watch him on TV and I go, 'Boy, does that ever look familiar.' "
Stamkos and Hull share Twilight of the Gods one-timers because of a nearly singular ability to blast them off any pass in the same zip code as their stick. Stamkos benefits from playing with slick right wing Martin St. Louis—St. Louis has the first assist on 22 of Stamkos's last 70 goals—but estimates he must adapt his one-timers to errant passes or bouncing pucks 30% of the time. Like Hull, Stamkos is nimble enough to make adjustments—one stride forward or a half step back—but also is able to contort his torso and torque his hips to elevate the shot. His wheelhouse is the size of a Vladimir Guerrero strike zone.
"We had Ales Kotalik, who could one-time it just as good as Stamkos, but the pass had to be perfect," Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff says of the ex-Sabre. "If you were serving it to him on a plate, it wasn't even a dinner plate. Maybe a side-serving plate. But Stamkos's plate is ..." and Ruff extends his arms wide, a figurative silver platter. Stamkos's form is as textbook as his timing, nothing like the slingshot of Ovechkin, the only player to top 60 goals in a season this century. "If hockey were golf," St. Louis says, "they would break down his swing and everyone would try to copy it."
While shooting percentage is a hollow statistic in a sport in which a shot on goal is never a bad play, Stamkos's numbers seem indicative of accuracy, not just circumstance. He is scoring at a 25.3% rate, primarily because of his ability to tuck the puck six inches under the crossbar. (His percentage ranks fourth in the NHL behind the Bruins' Milan Lucic, the Ducks' Saku Koivu and the Avalanche's David Jones, none of whom has taken more than 35 shots compared to his 75.) "Ovechkin can [go top shelf] too, sometimes," Boston goalie Tim Thomas says. "But he doesn't do it as often as Stamkos."
"You have to know when Stamkos is on the ice," Ruff says. "Like Ovechkin, we make sure to overplay him. You play the odds. I'd rather see somebody else shoot."
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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"IF THIS WERE GOLF," SAYS ONE TAMPA TEAMMATE, "EVERYONE WOULD BREAK DOWN STAMKOS'S SWING AND COPY IT."
Photograph by SCOTT CUNNINGHAM/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES
FLAT OUT FUN Stamkos (91) has been on a tear this season: He had his first hat trick of the season (left) in Atlanta on Oct. 22 and added another last Thursday night in Philadelphia.
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TAMPA TUTOR The up-tempo style of Boucher (in tie) has so far suited the Lightning, which hasn't been to the postseason since 2007.