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‘Old fart’ Stamkos talks up Tampa Bay’s prized youngsters

Tampa Bay Lightning v Pittsburgh Penguins

PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 22: Steven Stamkos #91 of the Tampa Bay Lightning skates against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the game at Consol Energy Center on March 22, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

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COLUMBUS, OH -- When most think of the Tampa Bay Lightning, they think of the team’s longest-serving player and captain, Steve Stamkos.

Stamkos, however, acknowledged a new breed of Bolts are doing the business this season, so much so that they’ve made the 24-year-old feel, well, old.

“You see the team that we’ve been able to develop over the last couple of years, the ownership, GM Steve Yzerman, the coaching staff, the young nucleus of the team,” Stamkos said. “I feel like the old fart, at 24, with all these guys coming in here, but they’ve played extremely well.

“I want to be a part of it, to say I’ve been there since the beginning and see the end result.”

Stamkos, of course, is speaking about Tampa’s celebrated young skaters: 19-year-old Jonathan Drouin, 21-year-old Nikita Kucherov, 23-year-old Ondrej Palat and 24-year-old Tyler Johnson who, while the same age as Stamkos, is still in his sophomore campaign and attending his first-ever All-Star Game.

“He’s done an unbelievable job of jumping into this league, playing the way he has,” Stamkos said of Johnson. “What’s most impressive is how he’s built on his season last year, when he’s getting more attention this year because you’re definitely not flying under the radar after being a Calder finalist.”

Johnson leads the Lightning with 48 points through 46 games and is showing no signs of the sophomore slump that’s ensnared last year’s Calder winner, Nathan MacKinnon. That said, part of Johnson’s success stems from the outstanding play of Kucherov and Palat, his running mates on “The Triplets” line.

Palat, a Calder Trophy finalist last year as well, has 36 points through 44 games and is averaging nearly 18 minutes a night. Kucherov, who leads the NHL with a plus-28 rating, has 43 points through 48 games and is one of just five Bolts to appear in every contest this season.

“Kucherov has kind of been the one that’s flying under the radar,” Stamkos explained. “He’s an unbelievable player, kind of makes that line complete.

“Those guys have played with each other in the minors before and have that chemistry, and it’s pretty special to watch.”

There’s also Drouin, who hasn’t enjoyed the same success as the Triplets, but with good reason -- he’s the 10th-youngest player to dress in the NHL this season and is just a year removed from junior hockey in Quebec. The No. 3 overall pick at the ’13 Draft has even sat as a healthy scratch on occasion, but seems to be getting better with every passing game.

“If you look at where his game is now to where it was last year at training camp, he’s made so many great strides,” Stamkos said of Drouin, who has 18 points in 37 games this season. “You can see the confidence in his game growing.

So yeah. Tampa Bay’s got a pretty good thing going at the moment... and potentially in the future, too.

Overall, Stamkos seems to have struck a balance between excitement for the future and focus on the present. The Bolts head into ASG weekend atop their conference and are a legit Cup contender, something Stamkos knows is within reach.

“We still have a lot of work to do, but I think we’d take being first in the East at the all-star break any year,” he said. “We’re happy, but we know we have some work to do.”