As the Tampa Bay Lightning prepare for the official start of the 2020 NHL playoffs after going 2-1 in their Round Robin games, there are a few major questions hanging over the franchise. One of these questions involves the status of their captain, Steven Stamkos.
After suffering a core muscle injury back in February that was going to keep him out of the original remaining regular-season, there was hope that Stamkos would be able to return to the lineup for the delayed 2020 playoffs.
However, as the Lightning hit the ice in Tampa for training camps, he was unable to participate in full. After suffering a lower-body-injury, he remained limited in practice and was eventually held out of their first three games in Toronto.
With the Round of 16 officially kicking off, many fans are hoping that his return will be imminent. However, this does beg a necessary question for the Lightning… where does Stamkos slot into the lineup?
Who Should Stamkos Replace?
The first question about Stamkos’ return involves who he should replace. When he was unable to start, the Lightning’s lineup was shuffled, moving Brayden Point and Anthony Cirelli to center the top-lines, leaving Yanni Gourde and rookie Mitchell Stephens to take over the bottom-six.
While it would make sense to move Stephens out of the lineup and return things back to relative normalcy, the rookie has played very well so far. He scored a goal in his playoff debut and looked solid in a limited defensive role on the fourth line.
However, the case against Stephens is simple as well. He still is a rookie being asked to take on meaningful ice-time in the playoffs, and he could quickly be overwhelmed by the speed of the postseason game.
So, even if Stephens has looked ready to take on a starting role in the playoffs, he will likely be the player who is forced out of the line-up when Stamkos returns.
Does Stamkos Fit in the Bottom-Six?
Once Stamkos takes over a starting role once again, there’s another important question for the Lightning: where should he play? Normally, he is a first or second-line center, but when you consider that he hasn’t played an NHL game since February, throwing him back into the top-six might be a bit of a risk.
Related: 2020 NHL Draft Guide
Due to this, it might make sense to start Stamkos on the Lightning’s third-line when he returns. This would allow him to play in a somewhat limited role with great puck-possession teammates like Blake Coleman and Gourde while injecting needed scoring potential into a line that looked a bit toothless in the Round Robin games.
The negative to starting Stamkos on the third-line is how that has been the Lightning’s shutdown line throughout the Round Robin games. While he can play a smart game, he is not known as a defensive forward like Barclay Goodrow, who would likely be shifted to the fourth-line in this scenario.
So, for the Lightning, the question becomes what’s worth more in the playoffs? A puck-possession defensive line, or a line with less defensive play but an elite sniper to add some offensive kick?
Lightning Need Stamkos to Succeed in Playoffs
No matter the situation, it is clear that the Lightning still need Stamkos to succeed in the 2020 playoffs. While he has been maligned in recent years due to injury and a bad 2019 postseason effort, he is a vital piece of their roster both on the ice and off it.
If he is ready to go for the first round, then the Lightning should be doing everything they can to get him back into the lineup. Adding an elite scorer like Stamkos is always worth it in a playoff setting, even if that means having to shuffle around some of the defensive aspects of their gameplan.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.