TAMPA — A little less than nine months from now comes the 10-year anniversary of the Lightning's lone Stanley Cup title.
So much has changed in that span, but there is one constant from that championship-winning team that remains — the heart-and-soul of the locker room, Marty St. Louis.
When Tampa Bay reports this morning for the start of training camp in preparation for the 2013-14 season, that chase to again reach the top begins once more for St. Louis nearly a decade after being at the pinnacle of the game.
As St. Louis draws closer to the end of his stellar career, the fire to get back to that spot burns stronger than ever because he knows his clock is ticking even as Tampa Bay transitions to a younger core of prospects coming up through the system, leading to the potential for more growing pains on the ice.
“I'd like to say I have a few good years left in me, but I don't think — and I don't know if patient is the right word — but I don't feel like I have that much time,'' said St. Louis, who captured his second career scoring title last season. “For me, I hope these guys are ready, and guys are coming into their own ... (because) you want to play in April and May. That's what defines careers, sometimes.''
Too few times in the past decade has St. Louis had the chance to play into April and May. Since winning the title in 2004, Tampa Bay has qualified for the playoffs only three times, twice being eliminated in the opening round. In 2011, the Lightning played deep into the postseason, losing out in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.
In the two years since reaching the cusp of a return to the Stanley Cup finals, Tampa Bay has been in the bottom third of the league, including 28th place overall in last year's lockout-shortened season.
Now, as St. Louis gets set to start his 13th season with the Lightning, Tampa Bay's roster is littered with many young prospects (such as Jonathan Drouin, Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, J.T. Brown, Richard Panik and Brett Connolly) and a pair of unproven young goaltenders (Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback) trying to help lead the franchise back toward contention.
Though it seems the Lightning are in a rebuilding mode, St. Louis doesn't see it that way.
Instead, the 38-year-old former league MVP sees a talented roster that might be ready to make the next step, rather than take another step back.
“To me, when a team is rebuilding, it's more that the young kids are not really ready but you still go with it,'' St. Louis said. “I feel like we have young players, quality players. Those guys when they come into the league at 18 or 19, they are impact players right away. So that doesn't mean you are rebuilding, that means you got better right away. That's the way I look it. I don't look at it that we are rebuilding.”
With all the success St. Louis has enjoyed — Stanley Cup championship, MVP, two-time scoring champion — and the level at which he still plays, he seems a perfect fit to be a leader, someone that many of the young prospects will look toward.
And with Vinny Lecavalier no longer with the franchise after his contract was bought out in June, the captaincy role is open, with St. Louis at the top of the list of candidates.
In recent seasons, St. Louis has worn the letter as an alternate captain, though it was more of a co-captain role with Lecavalier more than anything else.
The team is not expected to name the ninth captain in franchise history until after training camp concludes and St. Louis said he's not worried about whether he ends up with the C on his sweater. Instead, he is concentrating on getting through training camp on the preseason schedule.
“I'll be ready if called upon,'' he said.
The other leading candidate believed to be under consideration for the captaincy, Steven Stamkos, says naming St. Louis to that role seems a logical choice.
“Marty is a guy that I've been trying to learn from since Day One, everyone knows that,'' Stamkos said. “He's a heart-and-soul guy on this team and he's been here for a long time. He'd get my vote.''
That's the respect St. Louis has earned in his tenure with Tampa Bay.