A few days ago, it was announced that Steven Stamkos, captain of the Tampa Bay Lightning, had been placed on long-term injured reserve (LTIR) retroactive to April 9. What does this mean? It means he’ll be unavailable until May 5 at the earliest. This came on the heels of reports that Nikita Kucherov is getting closer to returning, getting everyone in Bolts Nation pretty excited, and rightfully so.
Kucherov has been dazzling teammates in practice for about a month now, which has only added to the anticipation of seeing him suit up in a blue and white sweater. With Stamkos now on LTIR, some were thinking there could be an all-star swap with Kucherov taking Stammer’s spot in the lineup. Unfortunately, even with the financial wizardry performed by general manager Julien BriseBois, the Lightning are still up against it when it comes to the salary cap.
The Lightning still have a cap crunch situation because Kucherov’s cap hit is about $1 million more than Stamkos’s. Defenseman Jan Rutta is tentatively expected to be back at some point after April 25 from his stint on the LTIR list, which could create more of a squeeze. The acquisition of David Savard at the trade deadline obviously puts less pressure on the Bolts to get Rutta into the lineup. Nonetheless, this season has shown that a healthy player today can turn into an injured scratch in the blink of an eye.
Kucherov Will Only Return When 100 Percent
Rushing Kucherov back is also something the Lightning aren’t likely to do under any circumstance. He had hip surgery. The hip is arguably the most important body part of an elite hockey player. For a full recovery from this surgery, a minimum of five to six months is necessary. On May 30, Kuch will hit the five-month mark.
The end of the season is scheduled for May 16, without any COVID postponements and whatnot. The playoffs are set to begin a week after that, so Kucherov will probably miss at least a portion of the first round of the playoffs. If the Lightning are down in a tough series against the Carolina Hurricanes or Florida Panthers, it’ll be interesting to see which path head coach Jon Cooper decides to take. Does he err on the side of caution and hold out your best player, or throw him out there and see what he can do?
The temptation for the latter will certainly be there. We’ve seen the incredible things Kucherov can do for the Lightning, especially in the playoffs. Last season, he and Brayden Point formed a two-man wrecking crew that led the team all the way to the Stanley Cup. This season, however, is a whole different ball game. Aside from coming back from a major injury and dealing with the physical toll of the playoffs, there’s the issue of line chemistry that’ll need to be hammered out as well.
With COVID Protocols in Place, Extreme Line Shuffling Has Been the Norm
Cooper has had to tinker more than usual with his top two lines, which is where Kucherov will be taking someone’s spot. Many have said to sit Tyler Johnson and create a spot that way, but it’s not that simple. At times this season, Johnson has seen minutes on the first, second and third lines. Anthony Cirelli has seen time on both scoring lines, along with Alex Killorn. Most recently, Alex Barre-Boulet was next to Point on the top line after an earlier stint on the fourth line.
The point is, the line combinations have been incredibly fluid. This is way less of an issue with players that have been practicing and playing with each other all season. Kucherov is still just doing reps as a non-contact participant. Yes, it’s uplifting to see him out there, but realistically, he’s still weeks away from returning. Because of this, getting him regular time on a line with guys in practice isn’t really practical at the moment.
As the NHL comes down the stretch run, with make-up games crammed into the already congested schedule, practice time for the Lightning will be scarce. A major hurdle in getting Kucherov up to speed will be getting him the opportunity to work with teammates to get some type of timing down. During Monday’s morning skate, he was seen getting a bit of work with the fourth line. This is not optimal because that’s not the line he’ll be on during a game, but it’s a start.
Number 86 is a transcendent player. Within the last three years, Kucherov has won multiple personal NHL awards. He’s led the team to a championship with the title, of course, coming just a season ago. He is, undoubtedly, the team’s best overall player and an indispensable piece to this year’s possible run at a repeat. Just don’t expect him to make miracles right out of the gate.
The Lightning will likely need to handle the first round without much of his services while he works his way back into things. This could be an issue, especially if Stamkos isn’t back 100% by then. If the team can do that, then the Bolts just might have a shot at immortality, being just the fourth club to go back-to-back since 1990.
Frank is a former competitive hockey player at the D3 college level. He’s what you’d call a hockey “lifer” having also worked as a hockey referee, time keeper and assistant youth coach, along with being a longtime member of USA Hockey. Frank comes to THW after contributing content on the Tampa Bay Lightning, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Orlando Magic for BackSportsPage.com.