TAMPA, Fla. -- The two captains are separated by just two years, and certainly both are all-world talents, but in the sense of having been there and done that, Steven Stamkos enters these Stanley Cup finals very much chasing the résumé of Jonathan Toews.
It’s not exactly his fault, to be sure, Stamkos already having lived through two rebuilds in his time in Tampa since being selected first overall in the 2008 NHL draft.
But here in his seventh NHL season, Stamkos is finally skating in the league championship finals. For Toews, the third overall pick two years before Stamkos, in 2006, it’s visit No. 3 to the big stage, and the Blackhawks captain is batting 1.000 so far with two Cup rings.
It's catch-up time for Stamkos in the battle of great captains.
"You obviously want to be known as a winner," Stamkos said during media day on Tuesday. "Anytime you look at the great players in this sport, they’re going to tell you the same thing: They want to win. I will do whatever it takes to win because that’s how I feel. Not because of what you guys will think of me, but because I want to win. This is my first chance to play in the finals and I want to take advantage of it."
He has shown himself a leader already, less than a year and a half into his captaincy. His work ethic didn’t diminish one iota when he began the playoffs without a goal in eight games.
That’s something a certain Hockey Hall of Famer noticed from three time zones away.
"He’s matured immensely," Wayne Gretzky told ESPN.com Tuesday from his home in the Los Angeles area. "He’s always going to be a goal scorer, he’s always going to be a guy that puts up 50 or 60 goals, and he competes really hard to score those goals. I was really impressed with how hard he played when he wasn’t scoring early in the playoffs, I thought he was playing extremely hard. And he wasn’t cheating the game whatsoever to try and get that offensive opportunity that would sacrifice the hockey club. That’s leadership. The rest of the players are watching that: Your best player is competing and doing other things for his team to make them a better club. I thought he played extremely well in the first couple of rounds, even though he wasn’t scoring at his pace. He’s being rewarded now with goals. He’s also providing a more physical presence than I’ve ever seen before, and he did a nice job. Consequently, his team is rewarded and they’re in the finals."
A Cup victory while playing a central role would help Stamkos, 25, close what is a sizeable gap on Toews, 27, in terms of a well-earned reputation as playoff warrior.
"There’s no question he’s one of the most special players the game has even seen, not even just in this era, but of all time," Gretzky said of Toews. "I hate making comparisons [becuase] each and every guy is his own person, but he’s the closest player we’ve seen come along since Mark Messier in the sense that he’s really smart and good defensively and he’s not your typical 60-goal scorer. But come playoff time, you’re going to look to him and lean on him to score those big goals in crucial situation, a lot like Mark did. I think there’s no question the comparison to how they play in big games is so similar. That's what makes Toews so unique: The bigger the game, the better he seems to play, and the bigger the goals he seems to score."
Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman is also awfully fond of Toews. Yzerman, as GM, has had Toews on Olympic teams and a world championship team. Consider for a moment that Yzerman carefully chooses his words and rarely does so effusively on any subject.
But when asked on media day on Tuesday -- Game 1 is 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday in Tampa -- to compare himself to Toews, Yzerman didn’t hold back.
"Well, we wore No. 19," he began, referring to the number he also wore during his playing days. "The reality is Jonathan is bigger, stronger ... better. He just is. Just a tremendous all-around player. Great person."
Again, comparing his Hall of Fame career to one that is surely going to end up one, Yzerman went one step further.
"Over the course of my career, my play, whatever, evolved and became through Scotty Bowman, I guess, the way he wanted our team to play, all of us became kind of more defensive-minded players, more well-rounded players," Yzerman said.
"Jonathan has been that since day one, since he came in the league. He’s a complete hockey player. Again, he’s bigger, stronger than me. I’m not sure I could even take him in a race, either. He’s probably faster. Just a better hockey player."
OK, then. Over to you, Jonathan.
"I want to call him Mr. Yzerman, but I know he'd probably get mad at me if I said that," said Toews on Tuesday. "But I think Steve is a very complimentary person, and I don't think he'd say anything less than that. I just take that with a grain of salt. I think everyone here knows that's pretty much untrue, but it obviously means a lot to hear any sort of praise from a guy like that. Over the years, I've gotten to know him a little bit -- obviously a tremendous person off the ice. ... It's pretty special to hear something like that for sure."
What you do see in Toews’ eyes, though, come puck drop is that same piercing focus Yzerman and Messier had in their playing days, a look that can put a hole right through your chest.
"Focus and preparation is as good as I’ve seen in any player," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said about his captain. "The more important the stage, the more important the situation, he wants to be out there, he wants to be successful. He’ll find a way to make it successful. It’s an uncanny ability he has that you don’t see in too many players. It’s will, competitive, warrior, leader. He’s got all the intangibles that you’d like to see in a hockey player."
Leading by example, like Yzerman and Messier did, is still the way to go in this sport. The rah-rah stuff is overrated.
"This is not like Disney when a guy stands up in the dressing room and talks to us like we are kids," said star Hawks blueliner Duncan Keith regarding Toews. "He’s a guy who is very focused and very driven. He’s passionate about hockey. I think because he is so passionate and driven, it leads to his success on the ice. I think guys take note of that."
Just like the Lightning are taking note of what’s transpiring with their captain.
"He’s a really good character person, wants to do the right things in all situations," Yzerman said of Stamkos. "You get a chance to talk to him, he’s evolving as a player, evolving as a person, evolving as a leader on our team. He’s doing whatever he has to do to win.
"I read a quote of his the other day," added Yzerman. "He’s having the time of his life. It’s all about winning. He’s kind of set the tone for that. Our captain, our best player, this is what we’re about. Everybody falls into line with that."