The Panthers have been helped in a big way by Jonathan Huberdeau’s return, but there are other teams set to benefit from an important piece getting healthy in time for the homestretch.
Jonathan Huberdeau’s return has given the Florida Panthers a shot in the arm over the past month. In eight games, he has four goals and eight points, has managed 25 shots on goal since his return and is skating more than 17 minutes per outing while once again forming a formidable trio with Aleksander Barkov and Jaromir Jagr.
Not only that, but in the time since he made his season debut at the start of February, the Panthers have dropped just two of eight games, rocketed right into the thick of things in the Eastern Conference wild-card race and are even on the cusp of potentially landing themselves a divisional playoff berth.
Now, as the deadline approaches, Panthers president of hockey operations Dale Tallon, acting as GM while GM-turned-coach Tom Rowe mans the bench, said that he’s going to be looking to add another offensive boost to his lineup if at all possible. However, no matter who Tallon plans or manages to add at the deadline, it’s hard to fathom they’ll have anywhere near the impact that Huberdeau has had since he stepped back into the lineup. In that sense, the best addition the Panthers will likely have made at the deadline won’t come from a trade, but simply by the return of an important player from an absence.
While it’s the Panthers who are benefitting from a healthy lineup now, they aren’t the only club that stands to get a boost just around the deadline when a formerly ailing player gets back into action. There are five players currently sidelined who stand to make an impact for their respective teams upon returning:
5. Joonas Donskoi, San Jose Sharks
Donskoi has been out of action for the past month, over which time he’s missed 12 games. That may not seem like a massive loss, but Donskoi has proven he can bring his A-game at the toughest time of the season. During the Sharks’ run to the Western Conference title and Stanley Cup final in 2015-16, Donskoi scored six goals and 12 points in 24 games while playing bottom-six minutes. That’s the kind of production teams look for from their depth players come playoff time.
Unfortunately, Donskoi hasn’t been near as productive this season with six goals and 15 points through 44 games. Even still, he’s proven he’s a threat to get the hot hand at any point. He scored 11 goals and 36 points in his rookie campaign, and that was no mistake. If he gets back soon, he could get some reps in right before the time the Sharks will need him most.
4. Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings
Sidelined since the start of the season, Quick’s return appears to still be a week or two away, but that puts him in line to be back in the Kings’ net by the time the final month of the season is upon us. That’s great news for Los Angeles, especially if the team can manage to sneak into the post-season. Goaltending can steal a series, and Quick has stood on his head in past playoff appearances. The hope has to be that he’s in game shape by the time he gets back, though.
If Kings fans, or anyone else for that matter, is wondering why Quick isn’t higher on this list, there’s an easy answer. As good as Quick may be, Peter Budaj has played pretty well over the course of the campaign. Quick will be an improvement, but it’s not going to be like going from a shooter tutor to a brick wall.
3. Darnell Nurse, Edmonton Oilers
The Oilers probably want to bolster their roster at the deadline as they get set for their first playoff appearance in a decade, but they might not have to do all that much to solve the depth problems on their blueline if Nurse comes back and plays like the top-four defender he’s capable of being. One of the bigger concerns facing Nurse has to be whether he’ll be in game shape or not. He hasn’t played since Dec. 1, and that’s a long time for a 22-year-old to be away from game action to expect him to come back and be effective immediately.
Nurse can be the perfect depth shut down guy once he’s back, though. He doesn’t need to play big minutes, but against a deep team, someone like Nurse could pay dividends late in the season and into the playoffs. As important as depth forwards are, having the depth defensemen to match up against a team that can roll four lines can be as crucial to post-season success.
2. Travis Hamonic, New York Islanders
Hamonic’s last game came in early January when the Islanders were in the midst of their struggles. The team has turned things around under interim coach Doug Weight in Hamonic’s absence, however. And while there’s a good chance some team in the hunt will improve their blueline in a big way with the acquisition of Kevin Shattenkirk at the deadline, the Islanders stand to get their own top-four defender back in Hamonic. That’s going to be a big boost for New York.
That said, this season hasn’t been a great one by Hamonic’s standards. Despite the fact he was scoring at a better rate that he had during the 2015-16 campaign, his ice time was down three minutes per game through the early part of this season. Weight might have a different plan for the defender, though. If Hamonic comes back and performs like the legitimate top-three defender he is, the Islanders stand to add a top-four defender to their blueline without giving up so much as a seventh-round pick.
1. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning have had an incredibly frustrating season and losing Stamkos as early as they did didn’t help one bit. By the 18th game of the season, the Bolts were without their captain for the foreseeable future, and he’s missed more than half the season with his knee injury. There’s still no definite return date for Stamkos, but he was given a four-to-six month timeline when he fell injured. That would indicate he could be back come the middle of next month or possibly just as the season closes. Things are looking positive right now, too. He recently practiced in full gear, per the Tampa Bay Times.
Stamkos’ game-breaking ability is something the Lightning have been missing for much of the season. While Nikita Kucherov and Jonathan Drouin have been contributing wonderfully this campaign, the Lightning have consistently had one of the league’s elite offenses over the past few seasons. This year, however, the Bolts rank 16th in goals for with 161. That’s not up to their usual standard, and Stamkos being sidelined hasn’t helped one bit.
The uncertainty surrounding Stamkos puts him at the top spot on this list with a caveat, however. He doesn’t help Tampa Bay near as much if the Lightning can’t somehow turn the tides late in the season and earn a spot in the playoffs. They’re only four points out with 23 games remaining, but it’s going to take some work and some favorable results around the league for the Bolts to sneak in. If the roster includes Stamkos, the likelihood of Tampa Bay making a late run go up drastically.
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