There is a difference between being a mentor and being a guide. For Steven Stamkos, he most often cites Marty St. Louis as being his biggest mentor. While the diminutive forward was the most influential in helping Stamkos achieve success in the NHL, there was another player who provided a pretty good road map for his career.
So on the fourth day of the 91 days of 91 project, let us talk about the man who wore number 4 (not you, Cory Cross) — the partnership that was a big part of Stamkos’ early career.
The two played together for 5 seasons, probably not surprisingly, they represented the best five-season stretch of Stamkos’ career. In the 373 games he played over that period, he scored 208 goals and amassed 386 points. For Lecavalier, injuries limited him to only 327 games, but he still produced 272 points, scoring 110 goals and adding 162 assists. It’s a shame that peak Stamkos never played with peak Lecavalier as they would be been one of the best one-two punches since Lemieux and Jagr.
And they were a true one-two punch in the sense that they rarely played together at even strength. Because they were both centers (Coach Cooper and his “let’s try Stamkos on the wing to piss off all of the fans” philosophy had yet to take root) it made sense that they wouldn’t see the ice at the same time unless it was on the power play.
The goal numbers bear this out. In the 327 games they played together, they assisted on one another's goal 48 times, and only 12 of those goals came at even strength (five of those were during Stamkos’ 2011-12 season where even I could have picked up 10 assists playing with him).
But it wasn’t so much the on-the-ice relationship that bound these two. It was their shared experiences that tied them together. Let’ compare the two shall we?
- 18-year-olds drafted number one overall - check
- Annointed as saviors to the organization before stepping onto the ice - check
- Walked into a bad situation with crazy ownership - check
- Struggled early before exploding as league-leading scorers - check
- Dealt with “come back to your hometown” trade rumors early in career - check
- Signed long term deals to stay in Tampa - check
- Injuries affecting the prime part of their career - check.
Stamkos really is Vinny Lecavalier with a better slapshot and a smaller French vocabulary.
Stamkos ramped up to top speed a lot quicker than Lecavalier did, as the Markham native scored 51 goals in his second full season while it took Lecavalier 8 seasons to reach the 50 goal mark. Part of that is because Stamkos is a more natural goal scorer, and another part is that he had much better talent around him.
Even before he played a game for the Lightning, Stamkos was looking at Lecavalier as a role model. In 2008 he told The Canadian Press, “[Lecavalier] went through exactly what I did 10 years ago with the same organization and just to see him progress as a player, what better guy to learn from than him?”
For his part, Lecavalier was ready to be the part of mentor. As he told the St. Petersburg Times, “Day after the draft. I’m going to prep him as much as I can. We want him to be as comfortable as possible.”
When the Lightning honored Lecavalier earlier this season, Stamkos reflected back on the early part of his career and how he was influenced, as he told nhl.com’s Brian Burns:
“Well, Vinny was a guy I leaned on a lot as I came into the league. He was someone that went through the exact same thing I did”.
Having a player to lean on when entering the league is a tremendous help for a young player. Lecavalier didn’t really have that when he first came to the Lightning. You could say that maybe Wendel Clark was supposed to play that role, but the generational gap was almost too great for it to apply. And Clark was there to play well enough to get traded to a contender (which he was).
If Chris Gratton had started the season with the Lightning, maybe he could have been a role model for Lecavalier, but he didn’t show up until a December trade brought him in from Philadelphia. That 1998-99 team was a train wreck of washed up veterans (no disrespect Kjell Samuelsson), D+ prospects (what’s up Jason Bonsingore) and Darcy Tucker.
Not only did he not have anyone to show him the ropes, the rookie from Ile Bizard didn’t have anyone to take the pressure off him on the ice. Tucker played in all 82 games (the only player besides Lecavalier to do so) and led the team with 43 points. We’re not even halfway through this season and Connor McDavid already has that many points. Anyone that had a spark of life was shipped out for prospects and the disinterested aloofness that was Alexandre Daigle.
Oren Koules, Barry Melrose and Len Barrie might not have been stable, but at least Stamkos had Lecavalier, St. Louis, Vinny Prospal, Ryan Malone, and Gary Roberts to surround him and guide him. They also took some of the pressure off of him. While he might have been a shiny new toy, he wasn’t expected to be the leader. He was able to learn at the NHL-level, and while the spotty ice time might have cost him a chance at a 30-goal season as a rookie, it did allow him to develop over the long term, a luxury that Lecavalier did not enjoy.
In an odd bit of nostalgia Stamkos also had Chris Gratton for part of the season. Every time the Lightning get a number-one overall draft pick they should bring Gratton out of retirement to skate with them. That would be fun.
Lecavalier was still a relatively young 28 when Stamkos came to the team and could still relate to the teenager who was destined to one day take over for him as captain of the Lightning. He was also a star player who had grown up and struggled through the digital age. While the internet wasn’t anything like it is now, Lecavalier knew what it was like to be covered relentlessly by the local and Canadian media and how to deal with it.
Hopefully what Stamkos can avoid is the tail-off that Lecavalier experienced toward the end of his career. It would be nice if the Lightning didn’t have to use their post-2019 lockout compliance buyout on him. Lecavalier was never the same after he damaged his shoulder in a collision with Matthew Cooke. Shoulder injuries and wrist injuries tend to linger — just look at how long it has taken Tyler Johnson to get back to where he was.
One thing Stamkos has going for him is that the injuries he has suffered aren’t lingering injuries. A broken leg heals, a blood clot dissolves. The knee could be troublesome, but with proper rehab it should be as good as new. He’s also younger than Lecavalier was when injuries started to limit his time. Stamkos should have many, many productive years in front of him.
While they were often on separate lines when they played together, Steven Stamkos and Vincent Lecavalier will always be linked in Lightning history.
* Yes, in case you were wondering, I do believe Lecavalier’s number should have been retired before Marty St. Louis.