One thing we know about Saturday’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers - Steven Stamkos isn’t going to play. Consider us officially nervous about his status for the start of the playoffs. When he first suffered the injury just prior to The Pause, missing the first round of the playoffs seemed almost a given. Then, with the four month break, hopes rose that he would be fully healthy and ready to go once hockey kicked back into gear.
Since training camp the organization has been cautious about setting expectations for his return to action. He would be seen working out alone on the ice between the group sessions, occasionally popping in for some special teams work. He joined a couple of full practices and seems things to be progressing.
The goal remained making sure he was ready for the games that counted and to be sure not to do anything to rush him back too soon. Skipping the scrimmages was fine because they would have time in the bubble in Toronto to work him in. The exhibition against Florida would have been nice, but that game didn’t mean anything so no need to force him to play then either.
After all, Stamkos is a veteran who has been down this road before. He’s a smart player and wouldn’t need much time to ramp back up to the level expected of him. A couple of full practices and maybe an appearance in one of the round robin games should be enough to get him to an acceptable, if not 100% level, of readiness for playoff action.
Prior to heading to the bubble that seemed to be the game plan. At the end of July, when asked about Stamkos’ progress and how important it would be for him to get some game action in the round robin games, head coach Jon Cooper responded with,
“I think it’s vital he plays in one of those games. I’m not going to sit here and say that’s going to happen. I think he’d be the first one to tell you if he could play in most of the games, it’d be a bonus, but love to get him in one, even better to get him in two, it would be awesome to get him in all three. But we’ll take them one at a time and one’s better than none. And if that’s not the case he’s been in these situations before.”
It’s now apparent that he’s not going to get into one game, let alone all three, and things seem a little murkier. Still, Coach Cooper acknowledged back then that they weren’t 100% sure he’d be ready.
Now, as we fast forward to the current time, things haven’t exactly cleared up. In fact, his return may be even more in doubt than before. It’s obvious that Stamkos has suffered some sort of setback in his rehab that is preventing him from joining the club at full strength. Still, it’s not so bad that they’re ruling him out definitely.
On Friday, Coach Cooper addressed the situation again. And it appears we won’t be getting much more info until Stamkos is ready to go. A leadoff question from the Tampa Bay Times Mari Faiello during Friday’s media availability gave Coach Cooper the platform to speak about his captain:
“Ok. I’ll save us any more questions about Stammer. He’s not going to be available tomorrow [Saturday’s game against Philly]. Injuries are unpredictable. And if there is somebody that is working harder than him [in trying to get back], I’ve not seen it. He’s rehabbing. Our staff has been working with him on a daily basis. In situations like this, you never know.
I think, to put this all to bed, don’t ask anymore questions about Stamkos. When he is ready to come back I will be the first to tell you. There is no use in speculating anymore. As of right now he’s out indefinitely until he’s not. And I’ll be the person to let you know when that is.
But you should know that he is working his tail off and he’s eager to come back. Clearly we want him to come back. So when that time is right, we’ll let you know.”
That’s a pretty definitive way to shut down the line of questioning. With the benefit of the bubble, and reduced media access to the team’s practices the chances of us hearing anything more about Stamkos’ status until Coach Cooper is ready to share, are pretty slim. Hopefully another few days is enough and the future hall-of-famer is ready to go by the time the Lightning face off against whoever they’re going to see in the next round.
If not, it’s 2016 all over again. During that playoff run, Stamkos was dealing with recovery from surgery to remove a blood clot near his right collarbone. Throughout the postseason there was almost daily speculation as to when he might be able to return. The Lightning didn’t need him for the first round, where they dispatched the Red Wings in five games. The second round was more of the same as the Islanders only lasted five games as well.
In the Eastern Conference Finals expectations heightened, and with Ben Bishop’s injury in Game One, the pressure increased for Stamkos to return. He finally did make it back in time for Game Seven, and played fairly well (his one shot of the game came inches from finding the back of the net), but the Lightning couldn’t pull off the victory.
Now, things are following a similar pattern. One main difference is that this is a much different team than the one in 2016. For one thing, the offense is much deeper. Back then, losing Stamkos meant that the Lightning lost their number one center and top goal scorer. Now, that’s not the case so much. Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov can help fill the void in a way that wasn’t possible four years ago.
When Stamkos does return, he’s most likely not going to be on the top line. Breaking up the Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov combination would be a risky move for Coach Cooper based on how that trio has performed in Stamkos’ absence. That line should stay together for most of the postseason. Adding Stamkos back into the lineup does bring some firepower to the second line of Alex Killorn and Anthony Cirelli, as well as helps the third line as it allows Tyler Johnson and his knack for scoring postseason goals to slide down there.
Playoff series, especially Conference and Cup final series, are often won by wearing down opponents and finding the right match-ups at the right times. With Stamkos in the line-up Coach Cooper has more flexibility to alter things to his benefit (if he uses that flexibility is fodder for another story). There aren’t many teams that can roll out 12 forwards as deep as the Lightning can, and that is a big advantage in the postseason.
The power play is one spot where his absence is going to be felt the most. Success in the special teams department tends to get magnified in the playoffs due to the scarcity of calls. A team with a lethal power play can gain an advantage if they’re able to convert. Or, as the Lightning’s 0-for-10 against Columbus last year in the first round can attest to, a struggling unit can help bring a good team down.
In his absence Tyler Johnson has slid into the top unit and Brayden Point has taken up Stamkos’ spot on the right circle. It’s worked out alright, but as good as Point is, he doesn’t have the threatening one-timer that Stamkos possesses. That takes away a part of the team’s effectiveness as they don’t have to account for the blistering shot and can focus a little more attention on Kucherov in the other circle.
As frustrating as it is to not know what’s going on with his status, the Lightning are doing the right thing. If there is any doubt in regards to his health he should not be playing. The number one seed is important, yes, but rushing him back for it and then having him miss the next two weeks because he re-injured himself negates any positive aspect you gain.
So we will sit and wait for the announcement from Coach Cooper that the captain of the team is healthy and ready to play. Hopefully it’s soon, but if it’s not, then the Lightning will find a way to win games. It might not be as much fun, or as high scoring as it would be with him there, but at this point in the season, the number of wins is way more important than how they came to be.