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91 Days of Stamkos: Day 80, Should Stamkos play this season?

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There are 10 games left. Is the juice worth the squeeze?

2015 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Three Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

This isn’t an official injury update, simply because there hasn’t been one in a few days. As the season winds down, the question changes from, “Can Stamkos return,” to “Should Stamkos return.” With the loss to Arizona seriously jeopardizing the team’s playoff hopes, the answer is looking more and more like no.

Coming back from a torn lateral meniscus is much different than a broken leg or blood clot. With the latter two, a doctor can look at an x-ray and definitely say the problem is in the past. There is no danger of a broken leg re-breaking at the same spot (especially with a titanium rod jammed into it), even if a player returns a little too soon (see Stralman, Anton). And once a blood clot has been broken up and the player is weaned off of the blood thinners, he is good to go.

Fibrocartilaginous tears can be different. Sure, once they’re fully healed there is little chance of the same issue recurring, but if the player doesn’t wait, if he forces his way back on the ice too soon, it can become a major problem. The last thing the Lightning need is for Stamkos to rush his way back only to have it pop on him again and then look at another surgery, more rehab (which he has called the toughest of his career) and a lost summer.

The long term has to be considered in this situation. Stamkos is signed for another seven years. The first year of his big deal was washed out due to the knee injury. Why should the team take the chance that another year is compromised? Missing the playoffs might make this one of the most disappointing years in franchise history, but at least it would end there. One bad season, a long offseason for Stamkos and the rest of the team to recuperate, and barring any off-the-ice implosion, the team is poised to contend next year.

Would Stamkos’ return even be enough to save the season? There is no doubt the Lightning could use him. Even with Vlad Namestnikov returning against Arizona, Tampa is worrisomely short of centers at this moment. Still, with only ten games left in the season it may be too late for him to have an impact.

There are many encouraging signs that Stamkos is getting closer to returning, including participating in a full practice a week ago. The team and Stamkos were quick to play down any importance to his participation other than to showcase how injury-ravaged the center position had become for them. Even Stamkos’ quotes after the practice weren’t especially promising.

“I’ll be playing when it feels ready. And I can’t say it feels ready right now”.

Stamkos also referred to the practice as a “start”. Unfortunately, the finish line for the season is rapidly approaching. The Lightning would need to win at least seven of the last ten games on their schedule to have a shot at making the postseason. There are three huge games left, two with Boston and one with Toronto. Is Steven Stamkos at 80% better than Brayden Point on the top line right now?

There is no guarantee that Stamkos is going to produce at the same rate he did when he was injured. Also, Coach Cooper isn’t going to run him out there for 20+ minutes a night, especially with the unkind schedule facing the team.

If Stamkos was to come back in a week, which would seem to be the earliest reasonable date based on his progress so far, the Lightning would be playing a stretch of four games in six days, including a back-to-back on April 1 and 2. Then, after a night off, another three games in four nights. That’s a lot of hockey for any player, especially one that has over four months of rust to knock off and a non-game-tested knee.

It would make for a nice ending to this series if on April 2nd, the 91st day of this project, Steven Stamkos is announced as the starting center against the Dallas Stars at Amalie Arena. It would also be nice if the Lightning came into that game on a 5-game winning streak.

Don’t count on either of those two things happening.