Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday we ask the Globe's team of hockey writers to offer up their opinions on the biggest questions in the world of puck.
Today we turn our attention to Tampa Bay, where Lightning forward Steven Stamkos has 19 goals in 19 games and leads the NHL scoring with 34 points. His strong start comes on the heels of a 51-goal breakout season that saw him share the Rocket Richard Trophy with Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
We asked our writers: Is it time to put Stamkos up with Crosby and Alex Ovechkin as the best players in the NHL?
Time does not decide, nor do sportswriters who spend their lives sorting through their own bellybutton lint for larger meaning. Kids and whatever universal consciousness that contains hockey will decide. And it hasn't happened yet.
Will it happen? No idea. But it does seem that Stamkos, for all his obvious achievement, lacks the charisma of Ovechkin and the Beliveau-Howe-Orr-Lafleur-Gretzky-Lemieux lineage that Crosby appeared to arrive with already in hand. Call it "Royal Jelly," call it whatever you wish, few have it and many of equal or even greater talent do not. It's inexplicable, but it's also real. So while Stamkos is clearly up there in numbers and game impact -- even in the measure of top players in the NHL, where he clearly stands with them today -- he isn't up there in terms of the reverence fans offer one at a time, in this rare Ovechkin-Crosby era two at a time.
Absolutely! Especially given he's scored more goals than both of them since the 2009 all-star break.
He's the complete package, and is only 21 - look at him physically compared to last year (he's way beefier), and it screams out dominant player, scoring stud for the next decade.
And he's only getting better.
Shame he doesn't have a Crosby-esque supporting cast or even Ovechkin's, but he arguably has a better mentor in Marty St-Louis than they ever did at his age, and Stamkos and St-Louis make Tampa a threat every night.
Barry Melrose, hang your head in shame.
Watching that delightful 8-7 win by Tampa over Philadelphia last night, with Steve Stamkos and Martin St. Louis putting up an offensive show to remember, put me in mind of the 1980s, when Wayne Gretzky's Oilers would occasionally be involved in similar games. That's what it felt like - a time warp - and that's how St. Louis characterized it post-game as well; a game reminiscent of a bygone era, and not just because of all the moustaches you see sprouting around the NHL this November to support the fight against prostate cancer.
Stamkos has a bit of Gretzky in him off the ice as well - friendly, approachable, and maybe just a little polite and circumspect at this early stage of his career. Experience tells me that can change as a player gets more comfortable in his career and his position in the league. I hadn't talked to Stamkos much in one-on-one situations until this past September, just before the season started, and I remember asking him about his goals for the year. I prefaced by noting that tying Sidney Crosby for the NHL's goal-scoring lead was going to be a hard act to follow and there were basically two ways it could go.
Either he'd gain confidence from scoring 50 goals in only his second NHL season. Or he could just see it as more pressure.
This is what Stamkos told me: "Obviously, there's pressure. The bar's been set. The expectations are there, not only from myself, but from the media, from my teammates and from the coaching staff.
"On the other hand, knowing I can do that at an elite level, that's only going to build confidence. I'm coming in this year as confident as I've ever been."
Based on the way he's playing now, you can see that those weren't just empty words - he is playing with supreme confidence at the moment. As Roy points out, we always love to characterize sports rivalries in terms of pairs - Crosby vs. Ovechkin, Gretzky vs. Lemieux, Magic vs. Bird. In a team sport, where two clubs face off against each other, three is a crowd, don't you know? But the way Stamkos is playing, yes, he is edging up into that rarefied Crosby-Ovechkin air - and in fact, for the moment anyway, is in a class all by himself.