Stamkos’ Legacy Is on the Line in 2021 Playoffs

Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos was named the team’s nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy. The award is given annually to the player “who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.” If there’s a player in the NHL that’s had to persevere more than Stammer in recent years, I’m all ears. 

Stamkos has had to deal with a lot in his 13 seasons with the Lightning. The injuries he’s had to overcome are well documented, but let’s mention them anyway. He’s had a broken leg, a lateral meniscus tear, the thoracic outlet syndrome that required surgery to remove a blood clot. This was all before last season when he was forced to miss the seven-game prelude to the bubble playoffs and almost every game after.

One saving grace was, of course, Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Dallas Stars. It only amounted to five total shifts, but he was able to put home a beauty en route to a 5-2 win in a pivotal game. He missed all that time because of a core muscle injury that needed surgery during the NHL shut down due to COVID 19. While working on getting back in the lineup, he suffered another setback that kept him out even longer. The fact he was even able to do what he did in Game 3 was a minor miracle and another example of his dedication to the team.

The New Season Brought New Challenges

The Lightning were placed in a reworked Central Division, which ended up being one of the toughest in the NHL this season. The captain came into 2020-21 with lots of optimism despite being without his longtime partner in crime, Nikita Kucherov. Stamkos was on the ice at Amalie Arena on Opening Night when the Bolts raised the 2020 Stanley Cup championship banner, albeit just halfway up so the fans could see it at a later date. The team got off to a scorching start, losing just a handful of games during the first two months of the season. 

With Stamkos leading the charge offensively, the Lightning held the top spot in the Central Division for most of the first half of the season. Through 38 games, he scored 17 goals to go with 17 assists for 34 points, almost a point-a-game pace. Then, as has too often been the case in recent seasons, he suffered yet another injury. On April 8 vs. the Columbus Blue Jackets, Stamkos suffered a lower-body injury that kept him out the entire final month of the regular season. 

Steven Stamkos Tampa Bay Lightning
Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The team was able to beat Columbus the night he got injured, a 6-4 comeback victory, but it turned out to be just a consolation win. It was announced a little while after that game that he had been placed on LTIR (Long Term Injury Reserve). Predictably, the Lightning struggled without him, going just 9-7 the rest of the way. The team did all they could to make up for the loss, but inconsistent play plagued them pretty much the whole month of April and into May. Stamkos is expected back before Game 1 against the Florida Panthers, but without even a single regular-season game to knock off the rust, how much can any of us expect from him right out of the gate? 

Great Regular Seasons Haven’t Translated Into Great Postseasons

The fact that he was in such good form before the injury can be a pretty decent indicator. Just before he went down with this latest injury, he was leading the team in goals. He was also the team leader in power-play goals which had him ranked fifth in the NHL. This is, of course, nothing new. He has consistently ranked among the game’s elite in scoring goals with the extra man. This is the 10th time he’s had double-digit power-play tallies in a season, this being his fourth consecutive. 

That said, those numbers are regular season stats. It’s the playoffs that have always been a challenge for Stammer. It’s not that he’s been terrible in the playoffs, far from it, but he’s never been the best player on the team during a deep run. In 2010-11, he played in 18 games before the Bolts got bounced in seven games by the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final. He ended up with six goals, seven assists and was an overall minus-5. After a three-year postseason hiatus, the Lightning was swept in the first round by the Montreal Canadiens. 

Steven Stamkos (Icon SMI)

Stamkos was held in check for just two goals and two assists. Incidentally, this was the only season Stamkos led the team in playoff scoring. The next season, the Lightning made it all the way to the Cup Final, losing in six to the juggernaut Chicago Blackhawks. The captain had 18 points, not bad, but had just seven goals in 26 games and was held completely scoreless in the Final except for one assist. To be fair, the Chicago defense was incredible that season. Kucherov also struggled, finishing with just a goal and two assists in that series. 

Kucherov finished with 22 points on 10 goals and 12 assists and was in only his second season in the NHL. Since then, he’s led the team in scoring in the playoffs four times in just six seasons with the team. Last year in the bubble, the hockey world saw him and Brayden Point make mincemeat out of the rest of the NHL. Point led the team in goals with 14 and finished with 33 points. Kuch had just seven goals but a whopping 27 assists to finish just ahead with 34 points. Stamkos has never come close to either of those point totals. Had he been able to, the Lightning would surely have at least one more Cup title. 

It’s Time for Stamkos to Join Other Lightning Greats Who’ve Excelled When it Matters Most

To put this in some perspective, Point has played in just 44 playoff games to 71 for Stamkos and has just four fewer points and two fewer goals. This is not meant to throw the captain under the bus, and he’s been a great player for the Lightning for many years while exemplifying what being a leader and role model are all about. Nonetheless, some truly great players have to don the blue and white jersey that have had some incredible playoff runs in the brief history of the Lightning. 

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Players like Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier a generation ago had the regular season numbers, but the playoffs were where they truly put their stamp on things. Brad Richards averaged just over a point a game in the playoffs while being the best player during the 2004 Cup run. Stamkos falls short of those players, while also falling short when compared to this generation’s best Bolts. 

Tampa Bay Lightning Steven Stamkos
Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

To cement his legacy as a truly great player for the Lightning, he has to be one of the top two or three players during a title run. Will it finally come this season? Who knows. It’s a bit difficult to say how he’ll do against Florida in the first round, given that he’s only faced them twice. In those two games, he has one goal and no assists in just over 40 minutes of ice time. 

Given the team’s struggles with the Panthers all season, it’ll be an uphill climb for the captain. A climb made even more difficult trying to shake off a month’s worth of inactivity. Having Kucherov back will help, but he hasn’t played a single game since last season in the bubble, so expect rust to be a factor with him. Florida has shown all season to be a tough nut to crack for the Bolts and that’ll be no different in this series for the team and Stamkos. If, however, he can regain his All-Star form pre-injury, he could finally be on his way to having the breakout playoff season we’ve all been waiting for all these years.