It would be unfair, and probably a little ridiculous, to call Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos “underrated.”
Not only because he has clearly been one of the best players of his era, but because the underrated label has become mostly meaningless in hockey discussions. It usually is just another way of saying, “this player is really good but I do not watch their team all that much.”
But there might be an argument to be made that Stamkos’ career has been taken for granted a little bit. And still is.
Not only has he spent his entire career playing in the shadows of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, the two players that have defined this era, but he also had a significant chunk of his prime years taken away by significant injuries that have cut into his career goal and point totals.
[NHL Power Rankings: Avs stay on top; Flames, Wild climb]
It is worth mentioning all of this because he is still rolling along as a dominant player for the Lightning and putting together another outstanding season. Entering play on Monday he is pacing the Lightning with 51 points in 44 games and still doing his part to lead an offense that has spent most of the season without Brayden Point and/or Nikita Kucherov. Just shy of his 32nd birthday he is still on a pace for close to 40 goals and 100 points over an 82-game season. It is not quite as age-defying as what somebody like, say, Ovechkin is doing for the Capitals, but it is still above what the overwhelming majority of players in their 30s can consistently produce.
Barring significant injury, he is going to eclipse the 500-goal mark sometime early next season and still be on track to reach 600 (and beyond) for his career. That is no small accomplishment in this era. He has been without question the second-best goal scorer of this generation and, quite literally, one of the all-time best. His career goals per game mark of 0.52 is currently the 18th best mark in NHL history. He is one of only four players in the top-35 of that category that made their NHL debut after the 2000 season, joining only Ovechkin (sixth), Auston Matthews (seventh), and Connor McDavid (30th).
What stands out about his career goal total (currently at 459) is that when he was at his peak as a goal scorer he was missing the most significant part of his career due to injury (and a lockout). Between the 2012-13 and 2016-17 seasons, his age 22-26 seasons, he played more than 40 games in just two of the five seasons.
The 2012-13 season was cut in half by a lockout.
He played just 37 games during the 2013-14 season due to a leg injury.
He missed the end of the 2015-16 season and all of the playoffs due to a blood clot issue.
His 2016-17 season was limited to just 17 games due to another leg injury.
During those five seasons he was averaging a 45-goal per 82-game pace. With better health (and labor relations) luck it is not a stretch to think that he could have scored 70-80 goals during that stretch and already been closing in on the 600-goal mark while also already topping 1,000 points. He should still eventually get there, it will just take a little longer and put a dent in his overall career numbers.
The “what if” game is one that has been played in sports many times over, and it is one that gets asked often in hockey with players whose careers have been derailed by injury (especially in this era with Sidney Crosby whose prime years were also robbed by injury). But we sometimes seem to forget about it with Stamkos.
Either way, he has been one of the league’s most dominant offensive players since his second season in the league and he is still going strong for one of the league’s best teams, one that just so happens to have a chance to make history with a potential three-peat as Stanley Cup champions.
[Related: Lightning looking like team capable of three-peat]
Since the start of the 2009-10 season (Stamkos’ second season, where he really hit his stride as a player) there has been a very clear hierarchy of NHL goal scorers.
1. Alex Ovechkin
2. Steven Stamkos
3. Everybody else in the NHL.
During that time period Stamkos, who trails only Ovechkin in goals, has a 55-goal edge over every other player in the league. John Tavares and Patrick Kane, the third-and fourth-leading goal scorers during that stretch, have both played in 100 more regular season games.
In some ways he is a lot like this generation’s Mike Bossy: An elite offensive player and goal scorer that is among the all-time greats but simply had their career mostly overshadowed by two other generational players (Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux to Bossy; Sidney Crosby and Ovechkin to Stamkos).
(A fun trivia fact to go with that comparison is both players won exactly two goal scoring crowns in their careers, both coming in their second and fourth seasons respectively.)
As far as No. 1 overall picks go Stamkos has more than exceeded the hype and expectation in Tampa Bay. He became a superstar, a key foundation piece for a team that has been at or near the top of the NHL for his entire career, and he helped bring championships to the city, all while (to this point) playing entirely for the same team that picked him. Maybe not quite on the level of Crosby or Ovechkin, but definitely the next tier right below. He is still going strong. Appreciate it for what it has been, and what it still is.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.