By Frank Pingue
TORONTO (Reuters) - Steven Stamkos is a goal-scoring machine who has had little team success in the National Hockey League (NHL) but he is expected to play a key role for Canada on the sport's biggest stage at next year's Olympics.
The 23-year-old Tampa Bay Lightning forward is in a league of his own when it comes to scoring goals but, apart from a deep playoff run in 2011, his team has always finished in the lower echelons of the NHL standings.
Stamkos, however, is a lock to make his Olympic debut for Canada at the 2014 Sochi Games, pending NHL participation, and his addition to the roster bodes well for a country that will enter the tournament as defending champions.
"It is a goal of mine to be on that team. It was pretty surreal to just hear my name being thrown around at the last Olympics," Stamkos, who leads the NHL with 21 goals this season, told reporters before Wednesday's 4-2 road loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"You look at the success they had there and obviously you want to represent your country anytime you can. But at that level it is pretty amazing so hopefully I am there."
Drafted first overall by Tampa Bay in 2008, Stamkos quickly established himself as one of the game's elite players and he leads all NHLers in goals scored since the start of the 2009-10 campaign.
Earlier this week, at 23 years and 41 days, Stamkos became the fourth-youngest player to reach 200 NHL goals. The only ones to do it faster are Hall of Famers Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Dale Hawerchuk.
He is coming off a season where he established career highs for goals (60) and points (97) and is in the midst of another stellar campaign despite playing on a Tampa Bay team that is a mere five points removed from the last place club in the NHL.
Last year, Stamkos became the second player since 1996 to score 60 goals in an NHL season. He entered Wednesday's game on pace for 35 goals and would have been projected to score 59 had the lockout not cut this NHL campaign to 48 games from 82.
"He's really talented, he knows how to score goals. The sad part of it is I have to practice with him every day so he scores a lot on me," Tampa Bay goalie Mathieu Garon told Reuters.
"You just can't beat the speed. He's fast, he's got a quick release and sometimes you know where he's shooting but it's still too hard to get there."
Stamkos had 60, 45 and 51 goals, respectively, in the past three seasons after scoring 23 times as a rookie in the 2008-09 campaign. He came one win shy of a Stanley Cup berth in 2011 when Tampa Bay fell to the eventual champion Boston Bruins.
Since then, the NHL's most dangerous offensive weapon has fine-tuned other aspects of his game, most notably faceoffs, making him a complete player.
"We all know Steven's got the offensive abilities and he's always been a guy that's backchecked hard and played hard both sides of the ice, but the NHL is very tough," Lightning head coach Guy Boucher told reporters.
"If you want to be a real top two-way guy it's all about the smallest details and that takes time, it takes experience and the last year Steven's definitely shown that he not only wants to learn but he's doing it."
(Editing by Larry Fine)