Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov may be the reigning Hart Memorial Trophy winner, but they seem to need a healthy Steven Stamkos just as badly.
Of course, it’s hard to assess exactly how much. Kucherov has missed only a handful of games due to injury over his seven seasons. Stamkos has missed, uh, more. Without getting into specifics right now, let’s just say health is to Stamkos what garlic is to vampires. Vampires tend to stay away, but maybe if they just tried it they might at least appreciate it as a concept. A lot of people seem to enjoy it, the bad breath notwithstanding.
Just the Latest Stamkos Injury
Regardless, Stamkos suffered his latest injury in late February, leading to core muscle surgery. To date, he’s missed seven full games for the Lightning… even though it feels like a full season at this point. That’s half in part because of the stoppage in the schedule, which is now on Day like 150 and counting.
The other half is due to the fact that, in Stamkos’ absence, the Lightning are a very ordinary 3-4-1, including the game in which he got injured against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 25. To be fair, the Lightning had lost their two previous games against the Vegas Golden Knights and Arizona Coyotes too. However, they had won 11 (eleven, in case you thought that was a typo) in a row immediately before that. They were due for a stinker or two. Technically, they were also due for a Stamkos injury, but I digress.
More to the point, that 11-game streak represented the second time the Lightning had won 10 or more in a row this season. Needless to say, despite their early-season mediocrity, the Lightning were back as Stanley Cup contenders.
Furthermore, the 2016-17 season, during which Stamkos was out for 65 games due to a knee injury, is the only non-playoff season in the last six for the Lightning. In 2013-14, Stamkos broke his right tibia, which cost him 45 games. In those games, the Lightning lost more games than they won, going 22-18-5. Considering the Lightning were a 101-point team overall that season, it speaks to Stamkos’ overall contribution to the team.
Stamkos vs. Kucherov
After all, prior to Kucherov’s emergence the following season, Stamkos had been the team’s primary weapon. Even with Kucherov usurping him in that role, Stamkos is hardly a wallflower offensively, as a regular point-per-game-plus player and 40-goal threat.
Playing with an in-his-prime Kucherov undeniably helps Stamkos from a scoring standpoint. However, let’s be clear: Stamkos accomplished a lot in this league before Kucherov ever showed up, even scoring a career-high 60 goals in 2011-12.
The Lightning should obviously pray never to have to find out, but if you take Kucherov out of the equation, there’s a great chance even a 30-year-old Stamkos continues to produce. Kucherov still has a lot to prove. Stamkos not as much. We already know what happens when you eliminate Stamkos and the results aren’t pretty. He remains a huge part of this team.
Boom or Bust for Lightning
So, when all indications were that Stamkos would potentially miss the first round of the playoffs, concern was palpable. Sometimes, especially if you’re the Lightning, the first round is all you get. Maybe that’s still too soon for some Lightning fans, but, seeing as they have suffered two first-round sweeps since 2014, it’s also fair.
As the Lightning have reached the third round at least their other three appearances in that span, it’s either boom or bust for this franchise. There was every reason to at least worry it would have been bust this time around too, without Stamkos. Then the pandemic hit and the season was put on pause. Fast-forward the eight weeks Stamkos was projected to be hurt and here we are. Stamkos is ready, should the season start up again. Crisis averted.
Well, you do have the coronavirus running roughshod all across North America and everything. And then you need the NHL to throw all caution to the wind and restart the season. Granted, they seem willing to forge ahead by playing games in centralized sites, but then you have to deal with the likely, justifiable resistance from the NHLPA (of which Stamkos is obviously a member). That would be a huge hurdle in and of itself. But take all that away and Stamkos should be as raring to go as a kid on Christmas morning.
Obviously, these are less-than-ideal circumstances for everyone involved. However, they’re about as ideal as possible for the Lightning, probably more so than for any other team. They already lead the league in goals scored (243) and a big part of their offense is returning to the fold (in theory).
Admittedly, the team they would be facing in the first round, the Maple Leafs, would be getting back a player of their own in defenseman Jake Muzzin. And God knows the Leafs need help on defense like everyone does a breath of fresh air at this point in time.
There’s no comparison though. Defense is a black hole for the Leafs, whereas, from top to bottom, the Lightning are strong, stronger now with Stamkos back. A legit contender even. So, if it is indeed boom or bust for the Lightning in the playoffs, keep your ears open for a lot of noise out of Tampa… or whichever hub city out of which the Lightning will end up playing.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.