This is Day 2 of 91 Days of Stamkos. If you missed Day 1, it’s here.
Remember how exciting it was after Steven Stamkos was drafted? The highlights from juniors, the expectations, the www.SeenStamkos.com website (don’t go there, it’s not about the Lightning anymore), Barry Melrose’s hair, the belief that there was no way they could be that bad two years in a row? The Rays were in the freaking playoffs! Those were good times.
Then things got weird. The Lightning started the season in Prague and lost. Then they came home and lost some more. Their first win didn’t come until the sixth game of the season (thanks Atlanta!). Stamkos could not score, couldn’t buy an assist and seemed to be on the bench for the entire game. Seven games into the season and he was without a point.
That would change the next game when he picked up an assist in his first game in Toronto (also the same day the St. Pete Times would have a quote about trouble in the clubhouse). The next game he scored his first goal, which he liked doing so much he scored a second time in the game. Apparently he didn’t want to show up the veterans on the team and score more than they did so he went another 14 games before scoring another goal.
By then Melrose was gone and Lightning fans were getting that queasy feeling that the Oren Koules/Len Barrie regime may not be a solid partnership. Melrose not only burned every bridge on the way out, he took the ashes and shot them into the sun. The owners were trying to tell him who to play, the players were going to the owners to complain about Melrose, the players were soft, there wasn’t enough hair gel in the locker room, the equipment staff put too much starch in his shirts, so on and so forth.
Despite throwing the entire team under the bus and then blowing the bus up on top of them, there was one quote that every Lightning fan remembers and holds against him to this day:
“[Stamkos] is not ready for the NHL”
Go up to any Lightning fan you know and say “Barry Melrose”. The response is going to be a derisive chuckle and, “Oh yeah, the guy who thought Stamkos wasn’t ready for the NHL,” and then some variation about how Melrose doesn’t know anything about hockey. Tom Jones from the Times ran a poll asking what fans thought of Melrose criticizing ownership and Steven Stamkos and only 24% of the 433 responses thought he was right.*
Well, fans, maybe now, 8 years later, it’s time to admit that maybe Melrose was right. At the point in which Barry Melrose was fired, Steven Stamkos wasn’t physically ready for the NHL. We can say that now, it doesn’t mean Stamkos is any less awesome. It just means he was an 18-year-old kid who wasn’t physically ready to play against grown men.
Which, if you remember the rest of the quote is exactly what Melrose was pointing out. The rest of the quote was:
“Steven is going to be a very good player...right now he’s just not strong enough to play against defensemen who are [6’3” or 6’4”] that can skate as good as him.”
Despite the shaky grammar, there is truth in Melrose’s words. Not only that, he wasn’t the only one to say that about Stamkos that season. Melrose’s replacement, Rick Tocchet, actually benched Stamkos two times in his rookie season mainly because he thought his star center needed to be stronger.
“We’ve got to start building his leg strength, and I want to start the process now instead of June or July,” he told the St. Petersburg Times, “I personally think this will help his development.”
It wasn’t only the coaches that saw it, Stamkos himself admitted it after the season, teling nhl.com:
“At times I definitely saw myself being pushed around or not winning battles that I’d like to win...It’s a big adjustment, but in the second half I worked with our strength and conditioning coach. We got a program going and I got stronger and faster.”
Tocchet’s gamble paid off not only because Stamkos learned what it took to play in the NHL from a physical standpoint, but also because it lit a competitive fire under the soft-spoken player that we sometimes forget about.
The original plan called for much more pressbox time for Stamkos, but his play after the All-Star break would not allow Tocchet to keep him out of the line-up. Post break he racked up 17 goals in 34 games compared to only 6 in the 45 games prior to the festivities.
And it wasn’t like he was getting a ton more ice time under Tocchet. With Melrose as his coach he was playing about 11 minutes a games and for the first few months under Tocchet it was about the same. It wasn’t until the last month of the season that his ice time bumped up to 20 minutes a game on a regular basis.
You can still criticize Barry Melrose for being a terrible coach with no game plan (as an anonymous player did after he was fired), but I think it’s about time we bury the hatchet on his comments about Stamkos.
*Jones, Tom. "THE POLL." St.Petersburg TimesDec 21 2008. ProQuest. Web. 2 Jan. 2017
(You clicked on the Seen Stamkos link didn’t you? I know you did)