Stamkos comes of age at hockey worlds

Steve Stamkos, drafted first overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning last June, struggled early in the NHL season but later silenced naysayers, scoring 23 goals and earning a spot on the Canadian men's world hockey team.

ZURICH, Switzerland — It has been quite a year for Steve Stamkos.

He was drafted first overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning last June and then was the centrepiece of the team's season-ticket drive without ever having played in the NHL.

When he struggled under coach Barry Melrose, the critics pounced, saying Stamkos, 19, would be better off back in junior. Melrose was fired and the Lightning continued to sputter, adding fuel to the fire.

But Stamkos turned things around in the second half of the season. He finished with 23 goals and 46 points, silencing the naysayers, and earned his spot on Canada's entry in the men's world hockey championship.

Stamkos scored two goals that highlighted his hand skills in Canada's 6-1 win over Belarus on Friday, and loved those moments.

"For me, I am just trying to keep going from the second half of the season,'' said Stamkos. "I got some confidence there and I wanted to keep it rolling and I do not want to take a step back."

Stamkos readily admitted he went through tough times with the Lightning, a team that seemed to be surrounded by negativity all season.

"I was thrown into a tough situation and I wasn't playing much. And all the turmoil surrounding the team, it was tough,'' said Stamkos. "But looking back at it now, I definitely learned a lot and built character. "

The turnaround came shortly after Stamkos was put on a line with Martin St. Louis, who took the rookie under his wing and mentored him for the remainder of the season.

The pair are linemates here and St. Louis doesn't take credit for the turnaround.

"I think it is just his attitude," said St. Louis. "He is very receptive and he wants to learn. He is a fast learner and he has fast feet and fast hands and those are great attributes.

"When you are a first pick, you still have that stigma and pressure to produce. But for sure he is the real deal."

Stamkos is grateful St. Louis took time to help him along.

"He is a veteran and one of the best players. He was won at all levels and he has won a Hart Trophy," he said. "His play speaks for himself and he has an unbelievable work ethic and that rubs off. He has been great for me personally. He has kept my spirits up."

'Guys are always talking about him': Doan

Stamkos is the type of player the Lighting can build around, and he has caught the attention of his peers.

"When you play in the West [Conference], you end up watching all the [East] games when you get to the arena," said Shayne Doan of the Phoenix Coyotes. "Guys are always talking about him and we had such a young team, they all talked about him because they either played with him or against him and they mentioned how good he was.

"Then you see him out here doing the things he is doing and he is pretty special."

Belarus coach Glen Hanlon knows what it is like to coach a struggling team and how losing can wear on a rookie. He is impressed with how Stamkos handled a trying season.

"The very thing I like about him is, with all of the negative sort of environment that he had to battle through at the start, it didn't seem to get him down. That is pretty strong for a young player who turned out to be a pretty good first-year player in the NHL."

Stamkos, meanwhile, is flattered by talk about him being in the mix for Canada's 2010 Olympic Games team.

"You try not to think about that, especially me. Who knows what happens when they put an Olympic team together? You are probably on the outside looking in. But you do whatever you can to impress them, maybe not for next year but down the road.

"Everybody wants to play in the Olympics and hopefully I will continue to play well."