What fans like about Steven Stamkos shows up on score sheets and highlight reels. What NHL scouts like about him fans might not notice.
You don't have to watch many Sarnia Sting games to appreciate what Stamkos brings to the table. Pick any game, and he'll have a couple of sensational shifts that justify his status as the top-ranked player eligible for the 2008 NHL entry draft.
Sarnia opened the Ontario Hockey League playoffs on the road against the surging Windsor Spitfires. Stamkos set the tone for the series in the first 20 minutes of Game 1 with the stuff you can't miss: two goals, both on breakaways. The first was a roof job on the backhand side; the second, short-handed no less, was a deke going the other way. Each silenced the crowd.
After the game, scouts were talking about Stamkos' other shifts, about what he did without the puck.
"Most top junior forwards have to learn how to find their end of the rink," one Eastern Conference scout said. "They're ranked at the top on the strength of the offensive game, but Stamkos is the rare kid who also knows what to do defensively and is willing to do it. People are going to go home thinking about those goals, but what stuck with me was the way, in a close game, he skated back to break up a 2-on-1. He passed everybody on the ice, like he saved an extra gear for his defensive responsibilities."
Scouts give Stamkos the highest possible marks for his hockey smarts -- you'll wait all game long for him to make a bad decision or mental error. He also gets the points for book smarts, winning the OHL award as the league's top student-athlete last season. And then, there's the social intelligence, what sometimes passes for character, but is a matter of understanding the character of others. He figured out by fifth grade what some pros never do.
At age 10, Stamkos was one of the seven overachievers featured in a story that appeared on the National Post's kids' page, "Seven Habits of Successful Kids." Stamkos' advice was simple: Don't hog the puck. For a lot of kids, "Don't hog it" is another way of saying "Pass it to me." But precocious Stamkos wasn't talking about passing him the puck, just the value of teamwork and unselfishness.
"In sports, you have to have a good attitude to play the game," the 10-year-old told a reporter. "You shouldn't always carry the puck or ball end-to-end -- pass it up and move, and maybe he'll pass it back to you. Give and go.
"There are some kids who don't pass the puck or the ball, and then you're wide open and they lose it," Stamkos added. "You've just gotta tell them, 'Nice try, but next time, he was open, so you could pass it to him and we'll have a better scoring chance.' You have to say good things and then they're confident instead of yelling and thinking they can't do it so they won't try."
Stamkos laughs now when he's reminded of his lesson in team-building. "It still holds up," he said.
His minor-hockey coach suggests the story gives an insight into what separates him from other talented players.
"Even when he was 7 or 8, Steven always was aware of what was going on around him," said Paul Titanic, who coached Steven's youth-league teams in Markham, Ontario. "In games, I'd lose track of how much time was left in penalties or who was coming out of the box next. I could just ask Steven. He always knew. And it was the same with what his teammates were thinking off the ice. That's important at winning at any level, from peewee to the NHL."
Sarnia coach Dave MacQueen seconds the motion.
"Steven sets the tone for us," MacQueen said. "When your best player is working hard without the puck, the others will do the same. When he's not being selfish, nobody can be selfish. He has made everybody on this team better -- our goalies are better because they practice against him. Our defensemen are better because they have to go against Steven every day."
The praise would turn a lot of players' heads. The snowballing attention would, too. Hockey writers have been calling the turtle race at the bottom of the NHL standings "the Stamkos sweepstakes." At the start of the season, a few friends and family waited for him after games, but this spring, dozens of autograph seekers have been mobbing him outside the dressing room.
"I see the same faces after every game," he said. "My teammates tell me, 'Stammer, that sweater you signed last night, I just saw it on eBay.'"
Another guy who might be seeking Stamkos' autograph soon was waiting for him after the opening game of the playoffs this spring: Los Angeles general manager Dean Lombardi. The Kings had a chance at winning the lottery, and Lombardi spoke with Stamkos for a few minutes.
Said one scout: "I have no idea what he'd have to ask [Stamkos] beside his sweater size. Any questions you might have, he answers on the ice."
The person who seems the least impressed with Steven Stamkos is Steven Stamkos. Plenty of top prospects can fake modesty, but he comes by his honestly. Though he's won at every stage, he wasn't always the best prospect -- he was the most skilled, but often the smallest player on the ice.
"You knew that some other guys could make the step up to major junior and the NHL, but right up to age 13 or 14, I couldn't be sure," he said. "I had always hoped to play major junior and I was lucky that after my bantam year, I had my growth spurt -- maybe 3 or 4 inches over the summer."
Growing up in Unionville, just north of Toronto, Stamkos was part of a small sports dynasty -- the Markham Waxers hockey team also featured two players who are certain first-round draft picks in June, forward Cody Hodgson of the Brampton Battalion and defenseman Michael Del Zotto of the Oshawa Generals. Stamkos' successes weren't limited to the ice. His age-group teams won Ontario titles in soccer, lacrosse and baseball, as well.
"Steven played shortstop, and I actually thought that baseball was his best game," said his father, Chris Stamkos, an executive with American Express.
By the reckoning of NHL scouts, Steven Stamkos had been the best forward as an under-ager on the Canadian under-18 team last spring. By midwinter, he cemented his standing atop the 2008 draft class. He played a big role, picking up a goal and five assists in five games, for the Canadian team that won the world under-20s in the Czech Republic in January.
After scoring 42 goals in his rookie season with Sarnia, he took on more of the load, racking up 58 goals in 61 OHL games this season. In the first round of the playoffs, though, he raised his game to another level, dominating play, scoring nine times in five games in a series win over Windsor, including four straight goals in Game 4, a 5-4 Sarnia victory. Making this all the more impressive is the fact that Stamkos went for X-rays (negative as it turned out) after taking a slap shot square in the boot during Game 1. As good as he was, Stamkos was on the limp.
In Saturday's Game 2 of Sarnia's second-round series vs. Kitchener, the Sting were down 2-0. Stamkos scored two goals on consecutive shifts in the last 10 minutes to force overtime and played every other shift all game. Sarnia lost 3-2 in the third overtime after Stamkos logged at least 55 minutes of ice time.
The only question hanging out there is a hypothetical one: If John Tavares, Oshawa's scoring phenom, were eligible for the 2008 draft, would he be selected ahead of Stamkos? It's hypothetical because Tavares was born just a few days late to qualify, and rumors of an appeal to the NHL or a legal challenge to gain entry never materialized.
Scouts are probably evenly split on the Stamkos vs. Tavares question, but that probably says more about their tastes in players than the quality of the teenagers' talents -- comparing the two is like comparing Mike Bossy and Steve Yzerman.
One's great with the puck, one's great without it.
Safe to say the team that wins this year's lottery will be quietly relieved not having to make the call.
Gare Joyce is a regular contributor to ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com.