This is, perhaps, one of the strangest ways to lose a top-6 forward just before a pivotal game.
The Tampa Bay Lightning will have to do without versatile right winger Ryan Callahan for the foreseeable future, as the team announced late on Monday night that he is out indefinitely following an emergency appendectomy.
Recent rhetoric surrounding Callahan hovers around his postseason performance, which has been underwhelming; he has just 3 points (all assists) in 12 playoff games so far and has yet to hit the scoresheet at all against the Montreal Canadiens. He's still bringing some physicality to the Lightning, but during the regular season he was a surprisingly good play driver and even-strength scorer and he's simply not bringing those things to the table right now.
That said, Callahan actually had a very productive year with the Lightning this season. Some of that is owed to spending a lot of time attached to Steven Stamkos on the top line, but he was good in those favorable minutes, finishing the year at 1.89 5v5 Points/60, which is a very good scoring rate for a forward (and above such names as Alex Ovechkin, Anze Kopitar, and Henrik Sedin). He's been a no-show in the playoffs but was an important piece of the Lightning's regular season success.
So how do the Lightning replace him?
That 20-year old rookie is pretty good
Jonathan Drouin has had an interesting first Stanley Cup playoffs with the Tampa Bay Lightning, spending most his time as one of the last skaters on the ice for optional skates and serving up popcorn in the press box. It's puzzling usage (or rather, lack thereof) for a kid who seemed to have carved out a regular spot in Jon Cooper's lineup, appearing in 70 games during the course of the regular season and splitting time between limited minutes in the bottom-6 or big time-on-ice on the top line with Steven Stamkos.
If simplicity is preferred in this "replacing Callahan" scenario, the simplest solution is to replace a top-6 forward with another top-6 forward. Drouin adds elite puckhandling and playmaking skills to a line that has struggled to do much beyond defend and grind. He scored at a similar 5v5 rate (better, actually -- 1.95 points/60) to Callahan in spite of less favorable usage and a remarkably dreadful (unlucky?) personal shooting percentage (1.59% at 5v5).
There are risks associated with handing a now 20-year old big minutes in a pivotal game, of course, so this might not be the preferred solution. It would, however, be the aggressive, "go-for-it" method, which unfortunately is something Jon Cooper has eschewed in these playoffs opting instead for a much more conservative approach in terms of tactics and deployment.
11-7 isn't ideal but it will get the job done
Listening to Jon Cooper talk about his lineups, one gets the sense he doesn't love rolling out 11 forwards and 7 defensemen. But it's hard to argue with the results; that alignment has seen the Tampa Bay Lightning win quite a few games.
Chemistry is harder to maintain from shift to shift, but the better forwards generally see a little bit more ice time and the defensemen are both fresher and utilized in better situations; it's easier to keep your weakest or most vulnerable defensemen in manageable situations and your best defensemen rested if there is an extra one to rotate in.
At times, Nikita Nesterov has been a shot in the arm for a listless and limp Tampa Bay Lightning power play, but, like the rest of the team, he's struggled at even strength. He'd likely be the one inserted if 11-7 is the route the team goes, though there's always Mark Barberio still waiting his turn. Barberio quietly had a very solid season filling in for various injuries or playing on the bottom pair but oddly seems to have become a complete afterthought for his former AHL coach who used him as a workhorse 1D back when they were together with the Norfolk Admirals.
Vladislav Namestnikov, who has played in 10 playoff games and has one assist, is an option to draw back in on the wing, though it's unlikely he'd be trusted with Callahan's minutes.
Jon Cooper also has access to his stable of black aces, but they'd certainly be long shots. Jonathan Marchessault and Mike Angelidis both recently took part in the main practice with the rest of the Lightning roster and would give the Bolts a different look on the 4th line. Luke Witkowski and Slater Koekkoek also took part in that practice and are technically available, as are the rest of the black aces.
Ultimately, though, this feels like a choice between playing it safe and going with 7D, or rolling the dice and really setting Jonathan Drouin free in the top-6; a negotiation of those two extremes is also possible, with Drouin drawing into an 11-7 alignment and seeing spare even-strength ice time.
Whatever's decided, Callahan's minutes need to be replaced and the Lightning need to find more production out of his spot in the lineup if they hope to close this series out at home and avoid going back to Montreal needing to win again on the road to avoid the ignoble fate of losing a series they held a 3-0 lead in.