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With Mitchell Stephens out of the line up, who replaces him?

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Mitchell Stephens appeared to suffer an injury that will keep him out for a while.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Columbus Blue Jackets at Tampa Bay Lightning John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

In Saturday’s Tampa Bay Lightning game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Mitchell Stephens was hurt on an awkward takedown by Blue Jackets defenseman David Savard. Savard pulled Stephens down backwards while Stephens was attempting to stand up after getting tangled up with Savard and Mikhail Grigorenko. The resulting play had Stephens fold over backwards with his legs trapped under him. Stephens had to be helped off the ice and was not putting any weight on his leg.

While we can speculate if it’s an injured knee or an ankle or a broken bone, Jon Cooper’s comments about the injury have indicated that Stephens will be missing multiple games at a minimum. That’s even with at least one game this week against the Carolina Hurricanes being postponed. Stephens was having an ok start to the season centering the fourth line after Cedric Paquette was moved prior to the season in a salary cap clearing move to the Ottawa Senators.

The Lightning have a few different options in their back pocket to handle the loss of Stephens. In Saturday’s game, Mathieu Joseph and Alexander Volkov who have both been battling for the twelfth forward spot with were in the line up. They were both able to be in the line up because Blake Coleman was a healthy scratch for the game after missing a team meeting. Coleman will be back in the line up for the Lightning’s next game... whenever that will be.

The Lightning could keep Joseph and Volkov in the line-up and keep running out the same twelve forwards that have been on the roster this season. The issue with that is that it leaves the team without a clear cut answer for the fourth line center spot. Many fans will scream that Tyler Johnson should be moved to the fourth line, because he’s bad, and he’s overpaid, and he doesn’t belong in the NHL. While that is an option, it looks to be a highly unlikely option to happen at this time.

The coaching staff will also not want to move Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, or Anthony Cirelli off of the top two lines. Nor will they want to break up the third line of Barclay Goodrow, Yanni Gourde, and Coleman.

The two most realistic to expect options are run to run a fourth line with Par Maroon, Mathieu Joseph, and Alex Volkov, or bring in a player from the taxi squad or AHL to center the fourth line.

The first option isn’t ideal since none of those three players are natural centers. Maroon and Volkov are strictly wingers. Maroon has taken one faceoff this season and has only taken 157 faceoffs in his 517 game career. He was the second option to take faceoffs if Mitchell Stephens was kicked out, but that’s just because Volkov was an even worse option. Joseph, likewise, has only taken 50 faceoffs in 111 games and has a career 30% win rate. For comparison, Stephens was winning his draws at a 65% rate this season.

The coaching staff could limit the need for this line to take faceoffs by only giving them on-the-fly shifts, but it does limit when and how the coaching staff could utilize the line and puts them in a poor position if they ice the puck. I should note here that Joseph did take a shift or two with Maroon and Volkov late in the game centering the line. But even going back to his time in the QMJHL, Joseph was always a winger.

The other option would be to scratch Volkov in favor of someone else that can take the center spot and have some chance at winning faceoffs for Maroon and Joseph. The prime candidate for this spot is Gemel Smith. He is a natural center and has taken 177 faceoffs in 83 career games with a 46.9% win rate. He’s not a great faceoff player, but he at least has more experience with taking faceoffs. He also wasn’t spectacular in his three games he played in with the team at the beginning of the 2019-20 season, but he at least brings some experience, which is more than the other candidates can say.

With the Syracuse Crunch’s season not starting for another couple of weeks they could afford to spare a player from training camp. The downside to recalling someone from Syracuse to fill the spot is that they could potentially have to go through a quarantine period before joining the team. There is no blanket policy for AHL recalls, and is being handled on a case-by-case basis by the NHL.

The Lightning probably have enough time that they could bring someone in and give them most of this week to quarantine if it was ruled they only needed a 4 or 5-day quarantine period instead of the normal 14-day quarantine. This does make Smith’s case much more likely since we have yet to hear of any recall to the Taxi Squad by the team, though I expect that there could be an addition if Smith is added to the active roster.

The two most likely options from the AHL would be Ross Colton and Alex Barre-Boulet. Both are natural centers. Colton is better suited to a fourth line role, while Barre-Boulet has a much higher offensive upside. Colton is a player that I had as a dark horse to make the roster, depending on how the salary cap trades had turned out over the offseason. With the way things worked out, there wasn’t room for him and he never really had a chance of beating out Volkov for the thirteenth forward spot. Barre-Boulet likewise didn’t have much of a chance either. While he’s been an amazing AHL scorer, there are still question marks around his game. Barre-Boulet will need to get a chance at some point, but it would be much better if he was given a chance with offensive players that can complement his skill set rather than being shoehorned into the fourth line.