TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher is an animated fellow, but mention Steven Stamkos and the amps crank up even more.
With five goals in his last four games, Stamkos is finding his range, but Boucher says it's not the goals that make his young star better than ever.
"I don't know about where he ranks but I'm glad he's our player and I love him," said Boucher. "I think he's playing the best hockey right now that I've seen him play. Last year he scored some goals but now he's showing he's a total and complete player.
"He's driving his own line, he's not playing with Marty St. Louis anymore and both lines are working really well. What I like about Stam this year is he's taken on leadership and he's paying such great attention to defensive detail and he pays the price. Right now he's doing it all."
Stamkos got a taste of playoff action last year when the Lightning advanced to the Eastern Conference final and Boucher believes the player enjoyed the moment and wants to build on it.
"Leadership is action and you say you're a leader or expect your older guys to be leaders, but then you find out they're not. Just because you are older and have experience doesn't make you a leader," said Boucher. "You can be 18 and be a leader. It's all about action and a mindset and Stam has that. He came in here this year and right now he's taking the bull by the horns and making his own way. Last year in the playoffs he became a man and a winner rather than just a star."
Now in his fourth NHL season, Stamkos has scored 23, 51 and 45 goals in his previous campaigns.
"It's my fourth year and you get the experience and get comfortable in your surroundings. The performance we had last year makes you want to come back for more," said Stamkos, who has six goals and three assists through 10 games this season. "I want to be a leader and it's the next step for me. You want to keep putting up the offensive numbers, but going through the playoffs makes you realize what it takes to win at that time of the year. You need everyone on the same page and having that commitment to defence."
Stamkos says the defensive part of hockey is what separates the winners from losers.
"If you look at all the elite teams in the NHL, they have solid defence too. If you're defending hard you're going to get the puck more and have more possession and that's going to create offence," he said. "There are instances where you can cheat by instinct but there are times with discipline where defence comes first."