Forty games into his rookie season, Steven Stamkos had only four goals and 10 assists.
That's stunning to consider now: He finished that season with 19 goals in 39 games, netted 51 goals last year, and is second behind Sidney Crosby in goals this season.
This all begs the question: Is he up there with Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, worthy of being entered into the "best" debate?
Not quite, but he's not far off.
A single season at or near the top of the scoring race doesn't make you the best player in the NHL; just ask Henrik Sedin. But there's no question that Stamkos is among the handful of players who can will their team to victory almost single-handedly.
Start with his impact on goal differential while he is on the ice. Over the last two seasons, at 5-on-5, the Lightning are plus-14 with Stamkos on the ice; without him they're a miserable minus-52. Nor has Stamkos simply been a passenger. Of the 83 goals the Lightning have scored with him on the ice, he has scored 30; that's over 35 percent. Stamkos also does the heavy lifting. He and Martin St. Louis are routinely matched against the opposition's top line, and with the injury to Vincent Lecavalier the responsibility placed on the first line is even greater than last season.
Stamkos' impact is greater still on the power play: With Stamkos, the Lightning have scored 7.6 goals per 60 minutes of PP time, far more than the league average of 6.3; without Stamkos, the other members of the Lightning have put up only 4.4 goals. Simply put, over a season and a half, nobody in the NHL has come close to Stamkos' 34 power-play goals (Dany Heatley is second with 23), and his 61 points are also No. 1; No. 2 is St.Louis, whose league-leading 46 power-play assists have mostly come on Stamkos tallies.
Yet Stamkos still has a few mountains to climb before he can be welcomed with Ovechkin and Crosby among the league's elite. First of all, there's no question that St. Louis has been a huge part of his success. For those who are wondering why Steve Yzerman would give such a generous contract to a 35-year-old player, you have your answer. Much like Brett Hull and Adam Oates in the early '90s, there are good odds that Stamkos' goal scoring would drop were he separated from St. Louis, who is as consistent a scorer and playmaker as there is in the NHL (since 2003-04, the year he broke out, St. Louis is fourth in total points, behind only Joe Thornton, Ovechkin and Crosby).
Stamkos will also have to prove that he can put points up consistently at the rate he's been doing it. His current 22 goals have been scored on only 109 shots, giving him a shooting percentage of 20.2 percent, a rate nobody in the modern NHL has been able to maintain for long. Truly elite players need some consistency: Ovechkin and Crosby each have four 100-point seasons and a scoring title, and it seems like only injury or Armageddon can prevent Crosby from winning a second title.
The last thing to remember is that Stamkos has the benefit of playing in the Eastern Conference, and in particular the Southeast Division, nicknamed "Southleast" for a reason. The West has been the stronger conference for several seasons now; West teams outscored the East by about 0.2 goals per game in head-to-head matchups last season. It is harder for Western Conference players to achieve point totals equal to those in the East, which made Sedin's scoring title last year even more impressive. If Pavel Datsyuk played in the Eastern Conference, we would speak of him in the same breath as Crosby and Ovechkin. To be included in this elite company, Stamkos will have to work on the little things in his game, the same way Crosby has added layers to his game over the last two years. Faceoffs are a perfect example; right now, Stamkos is winning less than 48 percent of his draws. It's hard to bury the puck when you don't have the puck.
But here if you prefer a more subjective method of evaluation, try this: If you were a GM, would you trade Ovechkin or Crosby for Stamkos straight up? As of today, the answer is definitely no. But ask again one or two years from now.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Tom Awad is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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