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Thursday, March 29, 2012
Is Steven Stamkos in the Hart running?


Could a 60-goal season put Steven Stamkos over the hump for the Hart Trophy?

While Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins is whole-heartedly deserving of the Hart Trophy talk he’s getting -- especially with Sidney Crosby having been out most of the season -- at least one former Hart winner believes Stamkos also deserves mention.

"For sure, not just the goal scoring but it’s the timely goal scoring," fellow Tampa star Martin St. Louis, the 2003-04 NHL MVP, told ESPN.com Wednesday evening.

He’s had a first-row seat of his linemate again this season -- and what kind of season Stamkos is having: 55 goals and counting going into Thursday night’s game at New Jersey. He’s got six games to score five goals and hit 60.

"Some of the times you’re just thinking, 'If I can just get him the puck,' because you know it’s most likely going to be a goal,” said St. Louis, who is admittedly not completely objective about his teammate. "For me, I know we’re looking like a non-playoff team, but it’s an MVP season."

It will be interesting how the voting for two of the game’s most prestigious trophies goes down. Selected members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association vote for the Hart, which goes to the MVP of the league. The players, meanwhile, vote on the Ted Lindsay Award, the NHLPA’s award for the most outstanding player in the regular season.

There’s a difference in the definition of both awards. You have a feeling not making the playoffs will hurt Stamkos more in the Hart voting than in the Lindsay tally.

"Not making the playoffs is not going to help him, that’s for sure," allowed St. Louis. "But if he gets to 60 goals, hopefully he gets at least one of those two awards."

No one has registered 60 goals since Alex Ovechkin scored 65 in 2007-08. What makes Stamkos’ chase of 60 even more daunting is that scoring is down again this season, for the fourth season in a row (from 5.8 goals per game in 2008-09 to 5.4 in 2011-12; both numbers are through 1,153 games). He might end up being the only player with 50-plus goals unless Malkin can score four goals before the end of the regular season.

"His 55 is the new 65," argued one rival NHL scout, who asked for anonymity.

The scout in question recently worked the Lightning-Bruins game in Boston. He came away incredibly impressed.

"He scores on his one-timer even when everyone knows it's coming," said the scout. "He's on another level in terms of finish; few people beat [Tim] Thomas clean with a wrist shot off a wide rush. ... Never underestimate the power and explosiveness that he has developed through his obvious commitment off-ice training -- indicative of his unquenchable desire to be the best.’’

A few years ago, when Stamkos was en route to his first 50-goal season, I spoke with Wayne Gretzky about the lad from Markham, Ontario, and the first thing The Great One pointed to was Stamkos' work ethic.

It was obvious Stamkos had all kinds of all-world skill, "but all that stuff doesn't matter if you don't work hard," Gretzky said at the time. "And he works extremely hard and that's why he's successful."

Stamkos has had the perfect mentor in St. Louis to glean that from. Few players have maximized their talent in this league like he has. The pint-sized winger is the epitome of hard work and dedication, and it’s clear that’s had an effect on Stamkos.

"Stammer has really high expectations of himself, he’s conscious of raising the bar and he’s conscious of what that means the following year and what he has to do," said St. Louis. "To keep that success is even harder. But guys like Stammer are aware of that. They put the time in to give themselves a chance to meet those expectations. That’s why not everybody can do that. You might have the speed but not the shot, you might have the shot but not the speed, you might have the mind but the shot. You need everything to be doing the things that he’s doing. He has it."

That includes making adjustments to your game. One thing that’s noticeable this season is how Stamkos has found a new way to score goals: it’s not just one-timers from the slot, where he’s always been lethal, but he’s become more adept at deflections and shoveling in rebounds.

"I always feel that you have to reinvent yourself every year,’’ St. Louis said. "Obviously, you know where your strong attributes are, you know ways you can score goals. But if you just rely on those ways you know you can score goals, teams are so smart -- there’s so much video in this game -- they’re just going to take it away somewhat. You have to reinvent yourself all the time. You need to find different ways to score goals. And he’s done that. He’s got a lot of goals on tip-ins and in the paint.’’

You may wonder 800 words into this story why it is the man himself isn’t quoted in this story. It’s because I know Stamkos isn’t terribly interested in waxing poetic on his sensational offensive season because his team isn’t playoff-bound. That’s why I chose to have his veteran linemate do the talking for him.

"He has his priorities straight in terms of what’s important," said St. Louis. "He’d trade all those goals to be in the playoffs. That’s why it’s hard to talk about yourself when you’re on the outside looking in. It comes from being humble and going back to how he was brought up. He comes from a good family.’’

It’s clear St. Louis has grown incredibly fond of his young teammate.

"For everything that he’s done already in this league, there could easily be a cockiness about him, but there isn’t,’’ said St. Louis. "I’ve said this many times: He’s a great player and I think he’s an even better person. That’s why you’re happy when a person like that has success. It’s so well-deserved.’’