When Steven Stamkos went down with a torn meniscus three weeks ago in Detroit, Tampa Bay Lightning fans were concerned but not especially worried. They recalled three Novembers ago when Stamkos crashed into the goal post in Boston and broke his leg. Naysayers throughout the hockey world stuck a fork in the Lightning’s postseason chances that year. The doomsday prognosticators were wrong.
As last season was winding down, Stamkos was diagnosed with a blood clot in his right collarbone. Surgery was required and Stamkos was out of commission as the playoffs began. Again, the so-called experts said the Lightning would have difficulty in the playoffs without their top scorer.
The Lightning won two series without their captain. In fact, Stamkos missed 16 of the 17 playoff games that Tampa played. He only played in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against the eventual Stanley Cup Champion, Pittsburgh Penguins. The Lightning wanted to make a return trip to the Stanley Cup Final but by any measure, going as deep as they did in that playoff run without Stamkos was as positive a takeaway as the team could have.
History Reveals Truth
So, history tells us that the core group of players for the Lightning knows they can play and more importantly, win without Stamkos. In fact, after Stamkos underwent his surgery, coach Jon Cooper said, “”If we put ourselves in a position to make the playoffs, he’s going to be back, and that’ll be better than any trade deadline acquisition that anybody else is going to get. “You’ve got to take your head out of the sand, dig your heels in and march on. And unfortunately, this has happened to us before and the guys have found a way.”
The fact of the matter is that since Stamkos’ injury, the Lightning has a record of 4–7–1. If the team doesn’t change things around and soon, there will be no playoffs for Stamkos to come back to in April. As the prognosis for Stamkos after the knee surgery is for him to be out about four months.
The main reason that in injuries past, the Lightning continued to win hockey games, is that they have other offensive threats besides Stamkos. Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Jonathan Drouin are all highly skilled offensive hockey players.
Three seasons ago, Johnson and Ondrej Palat led the team during the 40 odd games that Stamkos was healing his broken leg. Last year during the playoff run, Kucherov and Drouin were leading the charge offensively that led to winning the first two playoff series in a total of ten games.
This season, Kucherov continues to be among the league leaders in a couple of offensive categories and after battling a small nagging injury that forced him to miss a few games, Drouin just had his first multi-goal NHL game. The concern around town isn’t centered on missing offense. But it seems the void left by the absence of Stamkos is leadership.
Leadership Shows the Way
Don’t misunderstand, the team has leaders. Ryan Callahan and Brian Boyle come to mind immediately. Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, and Ben Bishop are all veteran NHL players. Even some of the younger players on this team like Johnson and Palat have exhibited traits and tendencies of leaders.
Most of these aforementioned players have worn the “A” designated for associate captains. No one doubts whatsoever that this group of players are defacto leaders in light of Stamkos’ injury. What this team needs right now more than anything is for one or two of these players to step up vocally to lead this team to the postseason.
During the last three weeks, the team has looked lost most games. There is no cohesiveness on the ice. Passes are off, neutral zone play is lacking, and the team’s biggest struggles continue to be their defensive zone play which has left both their goalies out to dry.
The situation calls for someone to step up and tell the rest of the boys to get their heads in the game. To tell them that their play lately isn’t good enough. To show the team by example, the type of play that is required to win the requisite games to be a playoff team.
One thing for certain is that something has to happen now or the Lightning will find itself on the outside looking in when the regular season comes to an end. That is the position they find themselves in right now.
That is not to say that it is time to panic. Oh, there is definite justified concern and panic that may be around the corner but the team still has 53 games remaining in the regular season. That is more than ample time for the team to take the necessary corrective actions but they cannot just assume that issues will just self-correct.
It is incumbent upon one of the leaders to step up and lead the team through the valley they are in now to solidify the peak of a postseason berth. Which leader is going to lead the team? Some may say that the coaching staff bears a lot of responsibility towards how the team plays but let’s look at last year.
After coming off their Stanley Cup appearance in 2015, the Lightning were one of a handful of favorites for postseason success last season. Even with a healthy Stamkos, the team struggled. After an embarrassing loss in Calgary in early January, Stamkos called a players-only meeting.
This wasn’t a rah-rah type of meeting about sucking it up and kicking butt. They dissected the video of the loss to the Flames. Players were encouraged to speak freely and to be constructive with their overall play. It worked.
At that time, the team was in the 10th spot (and out of the playoffs) in the Eastern Conference. When the season ended they were in second place in the Atlantic Division and went on their playoff run. The difference between then and now was the team had Stamkos suiting up until the very end of the season.
Taking the Team Where it Wants to Go
Good, bad or indifferent, the Lightning are at the same point right now. They just experienced an embarrassing loss to the Vancouver Canucks last week. As it stands right now, they are in the 10th spot in the Eastern Conference, outside looking in for the postseason.
The Lightning need a leader now. Someone who will be vocal enough to say what needs to be said to the team. The player who will take charge in the locker room as well as on the ice. There are many candidates for this spot, but it isn’t going to be appointed position. Someone is going to have to take it knowing that if they don’t, they are putting this season at risk.
Think of it this way, the guy that steps up will do so because it is time for someone to do so and because that’s what leaders do.
Born in Chicago, Illinois. Grew up playing and loving sports. Spent most of my formative years playing, debating, arguing and talking sports. for the last couple of years I have written about hockey. I am currently a Tampa Bay Lightning contributor for The Hockey Writers. I know that I may not always be right, but I am passionate about hockey and it is damn hard to hide that passion in my writing.