Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov
Nikita Kucherov is tied for the league lead in scoring, Jonathan Drouin is back and the Lightning have more forward depth than almost any team in the league, even without Steven Stamkos for the next four months.
The surgery is completed and the timeline is in, and the Tampa Bay Lightning are set to be without captain and leading goal scorer Steven Stamkos for the next four months. That's about as bad as the news could have been after Stamkos was forced to leave Tuesday’s game against the Detroit Red Wings.
The Lightning announced Stamkos’ timeline for return Thursday after he had undergone successful arthroscopic surgery to repair the lateral meniscus tear in his right knee in Vail, Colo., and it will mark the third time in the past four seasons that a major injury has put Stamkos on the shelf.
In 2013-14, Stamkos lost 45 games, not to mention his chance to play at the Sochi Olympics, to a broken right tibia. He remained healthy for much of the next two seasons, but mere days before the post-season began in 2015-16, Stamkos found himself on the shelf with a blood clot issue that forced him out of the lineup for 21 total games. And now, just 17 games into this season, he appears to be facing the longest absence of his career.
All told, a four-month timeline for return means Stamkos will be on the shelf for what is likely to be 50-55 games, but that’s only a rough estimation and one made under the assumption he’d be fit to return in mid-March. There’s a very real possibility that, given the nature of the injury, it could take him even longer to get back up to game speed as he recovers. If that’s the case, maybe he’s out 60-plus games and, though it’s the absolute worst-case scenario, it’s hard to count out the possibility he remains on the shelf into the post-season.
But just because the Lightning are without Stamkos doesn’t mean their season is over. That couldn’t be further from the case. And Lightning coach Jon Cooper said he and his team know how to approach this situation, thanks in part to Stamkos’ injury history and, more specifically, his long-term absence in 2013-14.
"Look back three years ago, I was a brand new coach, to watch your best player go down, you're wallowing in self-pity," Cooper said, according to the Tampa Bay Times’ Joe Smith. "You're so uncertain about everything. Now it's different because we've been down this road. The more you're put in the situation, unfortunately, the better equipped you are to handle it.”
It’s not only that the Lightning are better equipped to handle the loss of Stamkos mentally, either. That’s the case on the ice, too, and much of that is thanks to the work GM Steve Yzerman has done to keep his squad in tact, even in the face of tough contract negotiations and since-retracted trade requests.
When Stamkos went down in 2013-14, the team was led to the post-season on the back of then-captain Martin St. Louis, who went on to ask out Tampa Bay ahead of the post-season. But bringing up the rear with Stamkos out was a then-22-year-old Ondrej Palat, 23-year-old Victor Hedman, 23-year-old Tyler Johnson and 24-year-old Alex Killorn. And in the years since Stamkos’ broken tibia, all four of those players have taken massive steps forward in their careers.
Palat, 25, has since become an even better two-way threat and one of the better defensive wingers in the game. Johnson, 26, broke out the year after Stamkos’ injury, and he’s on pace to have another big year after some struggles during the 2015-16 season. Killorn, 27, is having the best goal-scoring year of his career, and more than ever he’s become a fixture in the top six. And as for Hedman, 25, it feels like only a matter of time before he’s up on stage in Las Vegas at the end of the season accepting his first Norris Trophy.
None of this is to mention that when the Lightning were without Stamkos in 2013-14, there was a 20-year-old Russian winger by the name of Nikita Kucherov chipping in on the fourth line.
Kucherov has arguably become one of the most lethal scoring threats the league has to offer, and that’s with or without Stamkos. Over the past two seasons, Kucherov, 23, has netted 59 goals in 159 games, and he managed his first near-30 goal season while averaging less than 15 minutes of ice time per game. Through 17 games this season, Kucherov already has nine goals — making for a 40-plus tally pace — and is tied for the league scoring lead with 22 points.
And the fact is that Kucherov’s ability, along with the club's remarkable depth, had the Lightning at least considering what life would be like without Stamkos as he got set to test the open market this past off-season. Being able to retain Stamkos was no doubt the plan, and it worked out better financially than anyone could have imagined, but the Lightning hitching their wagon to Kucherov would have been an easy-to-stomach consolation prize.
The reasons why Stamkos’ injury won’t crush the Lightning go well beyond even Kucherov, though.
Jonathan Drouin, 21, keeps proving he’s every bit the player he was projected to be, rookie Brayden Point, 20, has been steady and looks more than ready for full-time NHL duty and depth players such as Vladislav Namestnikov, J.T. Brown and veteran Brian Boyle allow Cooper to roll four lines at almost all points of a game, with veteran Valtteri Filppula offering a perfect answer as a replacement first- or second-line pivot.
Tampa Bay’s preparation for life without Stamkos when he was set to become a free agent and their experience in playing without him in 2013-14 have them in as good a position as any team for the remainder of the season. Most teams couldn’t survive losing a star of Stamkos’ calibre, but if any team can handle it, it’s the Lightning.
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