Tuesday, November 23, 2010

50 in 50 - Can he do it?

The biggest story of the year thus far has been Steven Stamkos and his relentless quest to be the first man since Nick Lidstrom's rookie year to score 50 goals in his team's first 50 games. Stamkos trained in the off-season with guru Gary Roberts, and regained his chemistry with former Art Ross winner Marty St. Louis. Steve Yzerman took over as GM and soon thereafter hired offensive whiz Guy Boucher, who made an immediate impact - Tampa is 5th in the league in goals scored per game. Yzerman also added Simon Gagne and Brett Clark; the former has been injured, and the latter has scored 7 of his 9 points on the league's 4th best power play.

Why he will do it:
He is surrounded with talent. St. Louis, Stamkos, and Downie achieved incredible chemistry last year - immediately after the trio was put together in late January/early February, Steve Downie went on a 10 game point streak, scoring 5 goals and 8 assists during the run. During this 10 game stretch, the trio combined for 23 goals and 29 assists. Not too shabby. Especially considering Stamkos strung together an 18 game point scoring streak during this time, scoring 17 goals.

Once Lecavalier and Gagne return, the Bolts will have two legit scoring centers (both having scored 50 or more in a single season since the lockout), to go with wingers combining for 9 seasons of 30 of more goals, and 11 more seasons at 20 or more. That's a lot of experience on the wing in Tampa, and a lot of goals. What does this mean for Stamkos? A guy who is very quick with his shots should be able to, at the very least, pick up a few good rebounds in the slot, and easily snap them home.

In addition to the scoring punch up front, Stamkos will be getting help from the blue line. Pavel Kubina and Brett Clark are two defensemen known for their hard slapshots, and Mattias Ohlund, who has not produced well offensively in Tampa, is a good puck mover.

He gets the ice time. Stamkos is averaging 20:46 in ice time per game through the first 21 matches. 4:55 of that is on power play. Half of his league leading 20 goals have come with the man up. Along with the fact that Tampa has the 5th most power play opportunities in the league, is that they make the most of the chances they have. The team is scoring on 23.7% of their power play opportunities, totaling 22 goals. Stamkos gets the ice time, and is the beneficiary of the puck movement on the power play.

He has the talent. When Stamkos was drafted first overall, Tampa envisioned the kind of player he has developed into. He ignored the sophomore slump, and more than doubled his point totals from the year before, leading the league in goals as a 19 year old, taking the trophy from two time repeating champ Alexander Ovechkin. The kid is only 20 years old - he has youth and conditioning on his side to make a serious run at 50 in 50. While some players might fade as the season continues, Stamkos only seems to get better. His scoring rate could very well increase as time passes.

Why he won't do it:
He isn't a complete player. It's hard to ignore the fact that Stamkos is only offensively minded. His ice time is limited because he's not that good on the penalty kill. For a team that has referee's best friend Steve Downie, and has been shorthanded 84 times in 21 games (good for 9th most in the league), this is not a good sign. Stamkos only receives on average 48 seconds of penalty kill time per game - down from 1:20 per game last year, when the team was penalized at a marginally higher rate.

Stamkos also is not very good on faceoffs. So far this year, he has won 50.63% of his home faceoffs, by far his best mark in his career to date. He has won fewer than 50% of his faceoffs on the road and at home in each of his other two seasons, including winning only 44.07% of his road faceoffs thus far in the 10-11 season. This may not seem like a significant statistic, but for a guy whose shot is that deadly, a set play off a clean faceoff win can mean a lot. I am not sure where to find the statistics, but it would be interesting to see the goal scoring numbers from Ovechkin/Green/Semin within 5 seconds of a faceoff win. I would wager on it being significant.

He doesn't get the right ice time. Stamkos has only scored one empty net goal so far this year. St. Louis has the only other empty netter for Tampa this year. Guy Boucher has to help out Stamkos if he wants to get 50 in 50. Period. Whenever the opponents pull the goalie, he needs to throw out Stamkos. Not to take the faceoff, but to play on the inside wing to try to make a play at the goal.

He is surrounded with talent. This is a blessing and a curse. The problem with being on such a talented team is that Tampa will find themselves ahead in games often. This can actually work against Stamkos in two ways. First, they will have to tone down the offense so as not to run up the score. Otherwise, the wrong guy will take exception, and 50 in 50 will be less of a priority than learning how to count to 50. Second, the depth players will get more ice time late in games. Obviously, with less ice time, there are fewer opportunities to score.

An interesting observation: when Ovechkin scored 65 goals, he scored 16 goals in his team's final 16 games. The team also went 13-3 to clinch the division and final playoff spot on the last day of the season. Ovechkin turned on when he had to, dominating the competition, and picking up goals at critical times. He wasn't padding his stats, and he wasn't scoring goals just to win an individual trophy. He scored goals to put his team in the playoffs, and Stamkos may be finding himself in a similar position. Tampa should make the playoffs handily this year, but should be competing for the division title, and they will need every single one of Stamkos's goals to do it. He will be counted on to lead his team from the front, and he has shown that he has little problem doing so. Look for him to kick it into high gear when it counts.

The prediction:
He won't get 50 in 50, but he will be knocking on 65's door come season's end. Stamkos is durable enough to take a beating over the season, and his opportunities will come, but more people will catch on and someone will figure out a way to stop him. Part of the game today is video, something that obviously wasn't as prevalent in the 80s, so game planning against individuals has become routine. Sooner or later, someone will slow him down, and he will cool off. Stamkos is talented enough to keep the debate open, but as Stamkos begins to play tougher teams (i.e. not Atlanta, Toronto, and the Islanders), his numbers will have to go down.

He will have a brilliant season, and he may score 50 in 50, but it won't be this year. Sorry folks.

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