TSN Hockey Insider Bob McKenzie reports that the sense among sources is that Steven Stamkos is highly, highly unlikely to return for any of the Lightning’s remaining 12 games. However, McKenzie adds that a postseason return has not been ruled out should the Lightning make the playoffs.
Stamkos, who underwent meniscus surgery on Nov. 16, has been skating with the Lightning for close to a month, but his return appears far from imminent.
Sadly, Tampa Bay has become used to playing without the services of the super-skilled Stamkos. The Lightning are still a respectable 34-27-9 on the season, just one point out of the wild-card spot. This is pretty impressive when you consider the severity of the injuries this team has dealt with. The problem down the stretch will be organizational depth.
The club’s last game was against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the very team they are chasing. Tampa Bay was forced to play without any natural centers since Tyler Johnson, Vladislav Namestnikov and Cedric were Paquette were absent from the lineup. Tampa Bay has played 70 games to date and only two members of their core group have appeared in their lineup consistently: Alex Killorn (69 games) and Victor Hedman (67 games).
Everybody else has missed time with various ailments. Naturally, that caused this Lightning team to be out of rhythm. After the month of February in which the club did not lose in regulation, the hockey world began to consider Tampa a playoff team again. It would be mighty impressive if Tampa Bay does indeed include its name among the final 16.
Everybody understands Stamkos has game-breaking ability, and there is a chance he could return for the playoffs. However, that’s a move that could provide more risk than reward.
It does not make much sense for Stamkos to make a playoff appearance for a few reasons. For one thing, taking part in team practice is in a different world than competing in the intensity of playoff hockey. Secondly, for Stamkos to come back after another long-term injury and be expected to be the guy for the Lightning would be a lot of pressure. But perhaps most imporatntly, it could jeopardize his future NHL career. Stamkos has suffered multiple long-term injuries, and unless the Lightning can be a true Cup contender, bringing him back prematurely could be trouble for the team and for Stamkos down the road.
However, regardless of what happens with Stamkos, the player who will be instrumental in Tampa Bay’s playoff push is not Stamkos, but Nikita Kucherov, who has emerged as the team’s star player this season. Kucherov is currently in ninth place in the NHL in scoring with 31 goals and 69 points through 63 games.
Clearly, the Tampa Bay organization is taking its time with Steven Stamkos, and I commend them for that. But even if he is ready for the playoffs, I would not chance it. There is a higher chance of reoccurring injury given the player history here.
Featured Image Credit: Associated Press