Following Steven Stamkos' horrific injury during Monday afternoon's game in Boston, the Lightning are faced with a gaping hole at the top of their lineup.
Once we've all moved past the obvious concern for the player and the person, we've said our prayers to the hockey gods and wished Stamkos a speedy recovery, the next place the mind often wanders is -- what do the Tampa Bay Lightning do now?
One option is to, quite simply, do nothing.
That's not to say that changes won't be made in the lineup. But there is a strong reason to suggest that the Lightning might try to ride this injury out with the NHL players they already have in the lineup, even with some top scoring players in the system at both the CHL and AHL levels.
Valtteri Filppula (12 points in 17 games) has shown tremendous offensive acumen in a top-6 role playing with a revolving door of wingers including Ryan Malone, Teddy Purcell, Alex Killorn, and Richard Panik. Moving him up a line to skate with Martin St. Louis in an effort to load up the top line with offense is something the Lightning have done with some success before, particularly over the past few seasons whenever Vincent Lecavalier was injured.
Tyler Johnson (7 points in 17 games) has shown flashes of the offensive talent that made him the AHL MVP a season ago, but he's been playing fairly sheltered minutes behind Stamkos and Filppula, so more defensive progress from him and his linemates would need to happen, and fast, if this is the route the Lightning go.
The Lightning still have Pierre-Cedric Labrie healthy and ready to be re-inserted into the lineup, giving them 12 healthy forwards counting B.J. Crombeen, who has also been a healthy scratch as of late. And Tom Pyatt, who broke his collarbone in early October in a game against the Buffalo Sabres, should be ready to return to the lineup in the coming weeks.
Shuffle Up and Deal
Of course, the big logical flaw above is that any plan of action that doesn't involve adding new players to the Lightning lineup requires someone currently playing wing to switch over to center, as without Stamkos the Bolts are down to Filppula, Johnson, and Nate Thompson as players listed under 'C'.
Fortunately the Lightning do have a strong two-way forward whose shown good ability as an NHL scorer so far in his career, albeit from the wing, with experience playing center in his career: Alex Killorn.
Unlike experiments to move Patrick Kane or Taylor Hall to center, which have mostly failed miserably for the Chicago Blackhawks and Edmonton Oilers respectively, Killorn would not be converting to the middle from a life spent roaming on the wing. Some of his defensive prowess and on-ice responsiblity to take care of the defensive zone, something many fans have noticed, is at least in part due to his background playing the center forward position in four seasons at Harvard. His conversion to left wing has been more due to the available positions in the Lightning lineup and his demonstrated ability to play well with top players from that position.
If Killorn can anchor one of the top two lines from the center ice position, the Lightning top-6 doesn't look too depleted and it keeps the bottom-6 forward group -- a group that's played relatively well so far this year -- intact.
Depth, Depth, Depth
When Steve Yzerman took over the GM position of the Tampa Bay Lightning, his buzz word was "depth".
He noted, as many GMs do, that hockey is a volatile game where injuries can ravage your lineup at any moment. In order to be a consistently competitive team, you must be wildly (and dumbly) lucky or have quality depth to insert into your lineup to fill the holes that will undoubtedly crop up over the course of an 82-game season.
And so the retool (rebuild? I forget what we call it these days) began. After a Cinderella run to the Eastern Conference Finals in his first year with the team, the Lightning faltered and Yzerman's plan began to come to fruition, as he sold off assets with expiring value for other assets to improve the team's depth. He acquired Brian Lee, Matt Gilroy, Brendan Mikkelson and Keith Aulie to try and add some depth at the 6-8 spot of the defensive depth chart. He moved Steve Downie, Pavel Kubina, and Dominic Moore for picks and entrusted his scouting staff to make good selections at each year's NHL Entry Draft from the top round down to the seventh. He also leveraged Tampa Bay's rising stock to sign a couple of heralded undrafted college free agents in Andrej Sustr and JT Brown, and a couple of not-so-heralded players in Cory Conacher and Tyler Johnson. The latter two won back-to-back AHL MVP awards with Tampa's top affiliate in the AHL.
This team has dealt with some injuries in the past, but a long-term injury to Steven Stamkos is exactly the type of scenario this type of depth is built to respond to.
Tampa Bay has four players to consider recalling from the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL. But there is obvious risk associated with pulling any player out of a lineup that is just starting to come into its own, includes so many first-year pros, and currently sits at the top of the AHL's Eastern Conference standings.
Ignoring that risk, the Lightning could choose to recall a young offensive dynamo to help fill a scoring void (with expected defensive lapses being the associated risk, at least at the NHL level). Both Vladislav Namestnikov and Nikita Kucherov -- currently number 2 and 3 in scoring in the AHL -- fit this bill nicely. Namestnikov would seemingly have the inside track, considering he plays center, but if Alex Killorn is moved to the middle then there is certainly a case to be made (and plenty are making it) for Kucherov to be given a shot in the NHL instead. Namestnikov is also more of a playmaker than a finisher, and if the object is to replace goals with goals, then Kucherov is the better bet.
The downside would be to risk these young players' development by thrusting them into tough positions too soon and expecting too much of them right of the bat. Either Namestnikov or Kucherov would almost certainly feel tremendous pressure being recalled due to the Stamkos injury -- pressure to prove they belong and should stay in the NHL and pressure to fill the shoes of one of the best hockey players in the world.
The more conservative recall would be either Mike Angelidis or Dana Tyrell. Tyrell, who has played mostly wing in the NHL, does have some experience in the middle and has the most NHL game experience (125 NHL regular season games played) of any of the options currently with Syracuse. He could slot into the 4th line, forcing the other regular centers all up one slot and leaving most of the rest of the lineup the same. Angelidis, who has had a cup of coffee in the NHL with the Lightning, would be in a similar situation. But his recall is less likely what with his role as the captain of a young Syracuse Crunch squad with championship aspirations.
Let's Make a Deal
A long-shot option to be sure, but one that should definitely remain on the table, is to make a trade for an NHL center.
It's impossible to speculate at who might be moved and for what price, but the Bolts have assets and Steve Yzerman will certainly be making some phone calls to at least test the market of who might be available. Call it due diligence, as this angle seems quite unlikely, but already this season we've seen Thomas Vanek, Matt Moulson, Ladislav Smid, Steve Downie, Max Talbot, and Mike Brown moved.
So while the shrunk salary cap has resticted player movement to a point, the Lightning obviously have a hole in their lineup and not considering a trade as an option to fill it -- no matter how unlikely -- would be foolish.
911, What Is Your Emergency?
The last option is one that we've seen quite a bit, most notably the fans.
Remember that guy, that 3rd overall pick guy from this summer? He's pretty good at hockey.
Word on the street is, he even plays center now.
Why not call him up, see what he can do in the NHL?
First off, Jonathan Drouin has already been reassigned to the QMJHL by the Lightning. This means that he cannot be recalled freely to the Lightning like AHL players can be as a result of the transfer agreement with the CHL. Drouin could only be called up to the Lightning as an "emergency recall", and while there is precendence for just such a thing, it's an exceedingly rare situation and not one the Lightning are currently in.
Managing editor John Fontana weighs in on the Drouin option:
One thing that shouldn't even be considered or asked is about the Lightning recalling Jonathan Drouin from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. I've seen several fans and media people make mention of Drouin... What gets me is the notion that this could be looked at as an "emergency" situation that would allow the recall of Drouin.
Emergency? Yeah, losing Stamkos sucks, but the organizational depth chart hasn't been so depleted that Jon Drouin would fit the "emergency" rule. That would require Tampa and Syracuse rosters to both be depleted to the point where the franchise needs to make that emergency move that brings a junior player (Drouin) to the NHL.
Injuries to Sami Salo and Keith Aulie would allow the Lightning to technically meet the requirements for an emergency recall of Drouin, but he'd have to be sent back immediately once the injured players return to the lineup, and if his recall lasted more than 9 games, his entry-level contract would kick in, negating the salary-cap benefit to sending him back to the QMJHL at the beginning of the season in the first place.
In The End, It Doesn't Even Matter
Whatever route Steve Yzerman decides to go likely won't fit neatly into one of these categories. We may see a Tyrell or Angelidis recall in the short-term while a trade is explored; or Namestnikov or Kucherov might be tried out in top-6 roles in the NHL; or Killorn, or Teddy Purcell, or someone else might be tried at center in the short-term. Or none of the above.
Ultimately, the Lightning just lost, realistically, 40 goals for over the course of the next 65 games. They have to either be replaced or negated defensively.