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What the Steven Stamkos injury means for the Lightning’s playoff push

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Things just got a lot more complicated.

Tampa Bay Lightning v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Just before puck drop for Saturday’s game against the Calgary Flames, the Lightning announced that Steven Stamkos will miss six to eight weeks after having surgery to “repair a core muscle injury.” The news comes after Stamkos missed a few games at different points in the season while dealing with the nagging issue. A visit to the doctor this weekend determined that surgery is the best course of action.

The news that Stamkos will be out until the middle or end of April is a big blow to the Bolts. Best case scenario, he could return part way through the first round of the playoffs. Worst case scenario, he wouldn’t return until well into a potential second round series. Considering how the Lightning season ended last year, anything short of a fully healthy roster entering the playoffs is stress inducing. And being without one of the best players on the team is a nightmare scenario.

This obviously isn’t the first time the team has had to play without its captain. This will be the fourth time Stamkos has suffered an injury that caused him to miss an extended stretch. The broken leg in 13-14 and the knee injury in 16-17 each caused him to miss large portions of those regular seasons. He also missed nearly the entire playoffs in 2016 due to a blood clot. That season, the Lightning managed to make it all the way to game seven of the Eastern Conference Final. If they can repeat that early round success this year, they should get Stamkos back sooner than he was available during that run.

But first things first, the Lightning need to figure out how to get through the next month or two without not just one of their best players, but one of the best players in the entire NHL. At one point during the string of injuries in the middle of the decade, many including me started to wonder about whether Stamkos would be able to get back to the peak level of play he showed early in his career. He silenced those questions by posting the eighth highest Wins Above Replacement (WAR) total of any player in the NHL over the last three seasons.

It can’t be overstated how big of a loss this is. Stamkos isn’t the type of player you replace. He’s the type of player you have to figure out how to adjust to playing without. His absence leaves a big hole in the lineup that no other player can fill. No one else can take his spot in the left circle on the power play. No one else can replace his pure finishing ability on offense. Those are things the Lightning will just have to do without over the next six to eight weeks.

From a lineup perspective, this means Mitchell Stephens is back in Tampa and should be playing every night. He’s been excellent in his rookie season in a defensive role in the bottom six. While his game is different from Stamkos in almost every way, one place where he might be able to help compensate for the loss is in the faceoff dot. After Stamkos, Stephens has been the most reliable player in that area and could find himself as the primary option to take faceoffs while shorthanded, which was something the team depended on Stamkos to do.

While Stephens will be a welcome defensive addition to the bottom six and penalty kill, the question remains as to how the team will adjust to the loss of one of their best offensive players. The first answer is that the stars will have to step up and help fill that void. Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point will both have to show that they can succeed as primary offensive options without Stamkos drawing defensive attention away from them.

Outside of those two, the name that stands out as needing to help pick up the slack is Tyler Johnson. The diminutive center is having probably the worst season of his career. He’s been barely above replacement level and is scoring at a career low pace. He’s been in a tough spot from a usage perspective often moving around the lineup and playing wing instead of his natural center.

He’s back to center now though and while he’s been jumped in the lineup by Anthony Cirelli, the team needs him to produce offensively. He played one of his best games of the season on Saturday including scoring a power play goal. The team will be hoping that’s a sign of him getting hot because a run of vintage Tyler Johnson play heading into the playoffs would be a huge help in surviving the Stamkos injury.

How the Lightning handle this stretch without their captain will determine their playoff seeding. They currently trail the Boston Bruins in the Atlantic Division by seven points with one game in hand and hold a nine point lead on the Toronto Maple Leafs who sit in third place. Those gaps are big enough that it would be a surprise to see any movement over the final five weeks of the season.

But where seeding could shift is in the overall playoff picture. The Lightning currently have the third best record in the NHL, one point behind the St. Louis Blues with a game in hand for second place. Where they finish in the overall standings could become important in determining home ice advantage if they’re able to survive deeper into the playoffs. So while a first round matchup against Toronto grows ever more likely, the Lightning still have plenty to gain by banking points down the stretch.

Steven Stamkos is irreplaceable. He’s one of the best goal scorers of this era and over the last few seasons, has been one of the very best players in the league. Compensating for his absence will require multiple players to step up and share the burden. The Lightning will get a month to figure out how to do that before the stakes hit a new level as they look to avoid back to back playoff disappointments.