TRAIKOS: Stamkos could be on the verge of becoming ‘the greatest captain’

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DENVER — The other day, a reporter went around asking Tampa Bay players at the Stanley Cup final who on their team would be the most likely to trade in their skates for a front-office job once their career comes to an end.

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Some got creative and said Nikita Kucherov or Patrick Maroon. One mentioned Victor Hedman’s ability as a general manager in a video game as a reason why he could succeed in real life. But for obvious reasons, most of them picked Steven Stamkos.

“Stammer would be a great GM,” said Lightning forward Alex Killorn.

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“As far as a GM and building a team … his knowledge of the game is so strong,” said defenceman Ryan McDonagh. “He’s grown up just watching hockey his whole life. He knows the history and what it takes to win and all the important things to help build the team.”

The idea of a star player graduating into a general manager’s role is no longer unusual. A large chunk of the Lightning was built by the team’s former GM Steve Yzerman, who won three Stanley Cups as a player and another as an executive, while two-time Stanley Cup champion Joe Sakic has his fingerprints all over Colorado’s roster.

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That’s just one reason why Stamkos might be eyeing Julien Brisebois’ job in the near future. Another reason is that the same traits that would make him successful in management are the same traits that have made him such a respected leader: he knows what it takes to win. 

And should he win a third straight Stanley Cup, an argument can be made that — along with Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews — Stamkos belongs in the conversation as one the best to wear the ‘C.’

“In my first year, I played with Vinny Lecavalier and then Marty St. Louis, and our GM was Steve Yzerman, so I knew them all a little bit. But Stammer is right up there,” said Ondrej Palat. “If we would win the third Cup, he would be the greatest captain for sure.”

He has certainly been raising it this year. Heading into Game 2 of the final, Stamkos has nine goals and 15 points in 18 games. That’s three fewer points than he had in 23 games in last year’s playoffs. But it’s more than just the production that stands out this time around. Stamkos ranks fifth on the team in hits and is fourth among forwards in blocked shots. He even got into a fight in the last round.

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“He does it all for us,” said defenceman Victor Hedman. “He’s really developed into that 200-foot player.”

The transformation from 60-goal sniper to selfless captain didn’t happen overnight. There were times when Stamkos, like Yzerman and Alex Ovechkin before him, shouldered the blame for Tampa Bay’s inability to win a championship. There were injuries that limited his effectiveness. And there was getting swept in the first round in 2019.

If there was a time when Stamkos might have been stripped of the ‘C’, that was it. But if you’re looking for a moment when it all came together, then the following playoffs are as good a place as any. Stuck in a bubble because of the pandemic and unsure if he would be able to play after suffering an injury to his abdominal core muscle, Stamkos had to find new ways to lead, new ways to make an impact.

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It was a delicate dance. Injured players are usually kept away from the active players. So Stamkos picked his spots, pulling players aside on off days to either pump their tires or remind them of what was at stake. All the while, he was working to get himself back into the lineup, which he finally achieved in stunning fashion, by scoring a goal in a pivotal Game 3 — the only game he played in the playoffs.

“What he went through in the bubble, playing in that game and scoring that goal and then obviously getting hurt again. That pretty much sums up what kind of person he is and how much he means to our group,” said Hedman. “The most unselfishness player I’ve played with.”

Wearing the ‘C’ has come a little easier for Stamkos since winning those back-to-back championships. But in a lot of ways, leading has also become more of a challenge for a team that could be forgiven for being satisfied with what they have already accomplished.

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Stamkos’ message this time around: don’t waste an opportunity at greatness.

“Our group is too good not to give ourselves a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup — and we’ve shown that,” said Stamkos. “For whatever reason, we haven’t rested on the last couple of years. It would have been easy to do, right? You have that success and you’re down a couple of games to a really good team in Toronto. And you could have said, ‘Okay, let’s get some rest. We’ve had a long couple of years.’ But that’s just not the makeup of this team.”

It’s also not the make-up of Stamkos. 

Unlike Mark Messier, you won’t hear him guaranteeing a victory. But you can guarantee that he’ll do whatever it takes to get that victory — whether on or off the ice.

“He is a phenomenal ambassador for our team and the sport in general,” said head coach Jon Cooper. “Anytime he gets himself in front of a microphone, it’s like he is re-writing exactly what should should be said … Stammer could be ref. He could be a GM. And probably a coach. He sees the game as it’s happening on the bench as well as anybody. And he can talk you through it.

“Stammer checks every box.”

[email protected]

twitter.com/Michael_Traikos

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