To start off with the obvious, it sucks for the Lightning to lose Steven Stamkos. There’s no doubt it hurts them. By any measure, he’s one of the league’s most prolific scorers. Since entering the NHL, he’s been second only to Alex Ovechkin in terms of scoring rate. Despite prior injuries, he reached 300 goals at the age of 25 in a scoring-deprived era. He’s very good.
Replacing a player this talented isn’t easy, but the team hasn’t exactly folded when he’s missed time in the past. A less talented, younger Lightning team went 22-18-5 in 2013-14 when he missed 45 games with a broken leg. Last year’s team won playoff series over Detroit and the Islanders in five games each before falling to the eventual-champion Penguins while Stamkos sat out 21 games with a blood clot.
The issue this season is the team hasn’t set the world on fire even with Stamkos. The former first overall pick has nine goals and 20 points in 17 games, but the team has just 21 points. That’s not bad, but they haven’t exactly given themselves a cushion should a slump come.
Nikita Kucherov will likely shine the most in Stamkos’ absence. He’s already the team’s leading scorer with 21 points and is now unquestionably the team’s best offensive player. The other two-thirds of the former “Triplets” line have not fared so well this year. Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat have combined for just 15 points so far. The Lightning have some of the league’s best offensive depth, so scoring hasn’t been much of an issue.
But goaltending has been worse than expected. It’s early, but Ben Bishop’s .902 save percentage is bizarre. Andrei Vasilevskiy has been solid and appears to be the goalie of the future. Regardless, the team doesn’t need excellent goaltending to compete, but hovering around .900 won’t cut it.
It was clear before the season that the top defensive pair of Anton Stralman and Victor Hedman was far and away the team’s best pairing. That’s partly because it’s one of the league’s best pairings and partly because the rest of the defensive corps is…rough, to say the least. So, Stralman missing time right now is rough. He’ll have to be back soon and at 100 for the Lightning to get back near the top of the conference.
On the bright side, Jonathan Drouin is now back from an injury. Drouin began to come into his own for the first time in last year’s postseason with 14 points in 16 games. He’ll likely need to continue to do that when now to help Tampa stay afloat.
The injured players returning, talented guys bouncing back and goalies playing to their normal levels isn’t all that unlikely. And in the Atlantic Division, they won’t exactly have to be a juggernaut to be among the top three teams.
The greater concern Lightning fans should have is for the long term. Stamkos has now suffered his third major injury in four years. With the recent Hall of Fame induction of Eric Lindros, there’s an easy comparison to make. But concussions aren’t the same thing as leg injuries. It’s entirely possible he recovers from this and never gets hurt again.
But the three injuries and the lockout-shortened season have already permanently hampered Stamkos’ career potential. As a young player, he was as dynamic scorer as anyone in the NHL. He has one of the two 60-goal seasons in the past two decades. He had a legitimate chance to reach 600 or 700 goals. He seemed like a sure bet to be remembered as one of the 10 best scorers in hockey history.
Stamkos might be fine come spring. And the team will in all likelihood will be favorites to play in the Eastern Conference Finals if he is. The team’s future isn’t in peril, even if his legacy is.