Two things happened on March 6th, 2014. First, Ryan Callahan made his debut as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Second, Steven Stamkos made his debut as the Lightning’s captain. Despite the historic occasion (and 44 shots) the Bolts fell to the Buffalo Sabres, 3-1, at Amalie Arena.
It was the beginning of a new era for the Lightning. Marty St. Louis, sent to the Rangers in the deal for Callahan, had been the team’s last link to the 2004 Stanley Cup. The roster was composed of young players like Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, Vladislav Namestnikov, and Richard Panik (yeah, it didn’t work out for them in the end, but on that particular date, he was one of their top prospects).
Stamkos was now the veteran on the team. He no longer had veterans to look up to, and it was time for him to take on the role of mentor. Of course, there was quiet talk that perhaps it was unlucky to be the Lightning captain — after all, St. Louis had feuded with the general manager and demanded a trade. And the captain before him, Vincent Lecavalier, had been bought out, not exactly the way captains normally leave the team.
Not only was the game against Buffalo Stamkos’ first game as captain, it was also his first game since he’d broken his leg in Boston. After missing 45 games, he skated for 21 minutes and had 5 shots on net (Michael Kostka had 7 shots on net, the most he ever had in a Lightning uniform). Stamkos would lead the team to the playoffs by scoring 18 points in the final 20 games. Unfortunately he couldn’t prevent an elbow injury to Ben Bishop, and the Bolts were swept by the Canadians in the first round.
In all three seasons that he has worn the “C”, the Lightning have made the playoffs. The streak does appear to be in a bit of jeopardy this season, but perhaps that speaks to his leadership on and off the ice. Even the players notice a lack of leadership. Brian Boyle talked to the Tampa Bay Times about the team “having to be better from the start” and their “focus [not] where it needed to be.”
Part of that is on the coaching staff, but there must be someone in the clubhouse to lead the charge as well. Being behind early has been an issue for the team all season long. Combine that with a lack of scoring 5-on-5 and average goaltending, and it’s no wonder the team is in last place in the Atlantic.
Having Stamkos back on the ice would most likely help with the first two problems. An elite scorer in the lineup would help the team score earlier and at even strength. In the last two years, Stamkos has missed 36 games, and the Bolts have gone 13-19-4 in those contests. When he is in the line-up they are a much more respectable 116-62-18.
Out of the many accolades awarded Stamkos when the Lightning drafted him, his leadership skills were mentioned time and time again. Pierre McGuire called him “extremely talented” and that he saw him “completely embrace being a leader.”
Not only was he the right choice to be named the captain after St. Louis departed, an argument could have been made that he should been granted the “C” a year earlier when Lecavalier was bought out. In fact, this very website built a very valid case for just that happening.
In hindsight, the transition probably would have been smoother if the organization had gone in that direction, but how could they know that St. Louis would want out less than a year later? In case you were wondering, the 62 games Marty spent as captain was not the record for the fewest games wearing the letter. That honor would belong to Bill Holder, who was the on-ice leader for a whopping 14 games in 1999-2000. The Lightning would actually have 3 captains that season, with Chris Gratton and a very, very young Lecavalier also getting a “C” stitched on their sweaters.
Being a captain in hockey carries more weight than it does in other sports. In baseball it seems to be mostly honorary. It was swell that Derek Jeter was the captain of the Yankees, but did it really mean anything? In football the captain’s responsibility seems to begin and end with the coin toss.
In hockey, the players see it as a true badge of honor. Stamkos told the Tampa Bay Times, “The fact that you’re in the NHL is pretty special, but you’re a leader of not only a team, you represent the organization, the city you play in.” They also have the added responsibility of talking to the refs about questionable calls on the ice. Most of the time Stamkos takes a fairly polite approach to discussions with refs, as opposed to the more aggressive approach favored by Sidney Crosby (beware, this Crosby clip is just a bit NSFW).
What kind of captain is Stamkos? His record would indicate pretty good (see the playoff streak above) and so do the comments from other players on the team. Former teammate (and former Dallas Stars captain) Brenden Morrow talked about Stamkos leading by example, “He always says, 'It starts with me.' It's not, 'Do what I say, not what I do.' It's 'Do what I say, do what I do.'”
Ryan Callahan, another former captain, said, “What we see, that maybe (others) don’t see, is his leadership off the ice, on practice days and how he is in the room.” That’s where captains earn the respect from their teammates. It doesn’t come from the letter on the uniform, it comes from their actions when they are wearing that letter.
He’s also one of the most even-keeled players on the team. Reporters aren’t going to hear him shouting at the team behind closed doors, nor is he going to throw a teammate under the bus in a post-game interview. Stamkos makes a point to do those post game interviews, and even if he’s doling out platitudes and cliches, he is out there talking even when he is personally struggling. He never hides in the locker room when things are rough.
There are other things he does as a leader. For one, he doesn’t air his laundry in public. In all likelihood he wasn’t happy playing wing instead of center, but he never said anything to the press or called out his coach. Does he hate Coach Cooper or do they play bridge before every game? It doesn’t matter. Stamkos doesn’t take sides against the family. Michael Corleone would be proud.
Stamkos will wear the “C” until he retires or leaves the team. Hopefully, the Lightning haven’t yet drafted the player that will replace him, as that will mean he will wear it for many, many seasons to come.