SIMMONS: Steven Stamkos clearly not Lightning coach's favourite
Lightning centre Steven Stamkos (left) skates with the puck against Blackhawks defenceman Niklas Hjalmarsson (right) during the second period in Game 1 of the 2015 Stanley Cup final in Tampa, Fla. (Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)
There was a face-off with 38 seconds to play and Steven Stamkos stood on the bench waiting for his name to be called.
He never moved.
He never said a word.
Needing a goal to send Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final to overtime, the Tampa Bay Lightning left the sport’s second most prolific scorer on the bench, coach Jon Cooper making a mostly odd decision. He stayed with Ryan Callahan as his extra forward, with the goalie out. He never called for Stamkos.
He made a conscious decision to stay with Callahan, with one goal in the playoffs, while his hottest scorer, shooter Stamkos, parked his six-goals-in-10-games butt on the pine.
For his part, as team captain, leader of the Lighting, he didn’t force himself to choose his answers carefully Friday. That’s not how he operates. He’s all about team. He’s all about winning. He’s grown beyond his 25 years. Still, it’s not his nature to say spit if he had a mouth full of it.
Did he want to play the final minute? Absolutely. Is he angry about not playing? If he is, he isn’t showing it. Does he want to play more minutes? Who doesn’t -- but in his case, there is more than an argument to be made on his behalf.
And just a bit of mystery surrounding the manner in which Stamkos is utilized, considering his star status and all.
He played 20 shifts in Game 1 and wound up with 17 minutes and 17 seconds of ice. Those aren’t terrible numbers. But what’s alarming is this: That’s sixth best among Lightning forwards in the game. Cooper played five forwards more than him. Tyler Johnson, the teacher’s pet, played almost four minutes more.
Across the ice, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, stars of Chicago, played 28 shifts each -- eight shifts more than Stamkos took. Within the context of one game, that’s almost a playoff lifetime. Kane didn’t necessarily play well in Game 1 -- but Joel Quenneville kept sending him out there. He played 24:19 in the opener.
Seven minutes and change more than Stamkos.
If Quenneville was going to lose, he was going to lose with his best. Tampa lost with its best on the bench.
“I go out and do whatever I can every shift,” said Stamkos. “That’s all I can control.” When asked about the final minute of play, he said: “I want to be out there. If you ask every player they want to be out there ... You have to believe in yourself that you’re a difference maker.”
He wasn’t a difference maker to start playoffs. The he was moved from first line centre to second line right winger. The Johnson Triplets line is clearly Cooper’s favourite. He won an American Hockey League championship coaching two-thirds of them. Those are his boys. He talks about them the way a father brags about his children. Any minute now, you expect him to pull out the baby pictures.
He does says nice things about Stamkos too. He just doesn’t gush about his captain.
But he does play him less. And there are those who believe Cooper favours those who played for him in the minors over those who did not. That may be his coaching comfort zone. It may eventually be his undoing in Tampa.
Cooper wisely moved Stamkos from first line centre to effectively second line right wing to get him scoring. And that worked. But it also worked because Stamkos didn’t play the part of diva the way a lot of star centres would. He didn’t argue. He didn’t pout. He didn’t complain to media. He didn’t think much of it: He just played.
Stamkos admitted he didn’t like it when he was sent by Cooper to serve a penalty for too many men on the ice in the opener. He doesn’t kill penalties but is always thinking the game. He doesn’t want to miss out on a possible 4-on-4 or even a 4-on-3 situation if that happens to result.
Cooper explained that the defencemen and forwards on the ice were all penalty killers and that’s why he sent Stamkos to the box. Someone on the ice, he believed, had to serve the penalty. That’s not what Rule 17 says. Anyone can serve the penalty. An NHL coach has to know that.
But there is always part of a question seemingly unanswered here.
Stamkos is a free agent come next June. Once upon a time, it seemed far fetched that he would ever leave Tampa Bay. But he’s now playing the wing instead of centre, getting second line minutes for a coach who doesn’t favour him. The narrative has changed. The championship series continues with his ice time now being tracked, second by second. The clock ticks.