Steven Stamkos is one of the most talented, most exciting offensive weapons of his generation. The fact that the Tampa Bay Lightning have now progressed to within three wins of the Stanley Cup without the sharpshooter’s services is quite a credit to the organization.
But the prospects of the Lightning captain making an appearance before the bubble bursts as early as this weekend seem more real now than they have been at any point in the NHL’s restart. Stamkos has been a steady presence at practice and morning skates, his head coach has teased his addition to the lineup in recent media appearances, and if there was a time to push it in terms of readiness and timetable, this would obviously be it with the Lightning now oh-so-close to a championship.
You would have to be either heartless, or a fan of the Dallas Stars (or both) to not want to see Stamkos make his return and participate in what could be the crowning moment for a franchise that’s done just about everything better than just about any other team over the course of the last half decade, or so.
Stamkos has been through a lot and given a lot to the game in 12 seasons with the Lightning, serving as captain over the last six. He is as much a part of this run as anyone, and it would be a shame if the opportunity to directly contribute to the championship this team was always supposed to win winds up passing him by. Never once in his wildest dreams, one would imagine, did Stamkos envision hoisting the Stanley Cup with street clothes on under a perfectly dry, perfectly crisp sweater thrown on only for the celebration.
Even if he’s inserted into the lineup at a point, it’s unclear what percentage of Stamkos would be there for the Lightning, or what role he could take on for a team that charted an efficient path to the NHL’s championship series over the last seven-plus weeks.
Stamkos is seven months removed from his last live-action appearance, and has both underwent core muscle surgery, suffered a new lower-body injury, and had at least one setback, in the time between.
Surely he would be an upgrade on the forward that would have to come out. But in what ways could Stamkos truly contribute?
Powering the special teams
The most obvious area where Stamkos could lend a helping hand is on the power play, which has been uncharacteristically low output and simply far less dynamic throughout the playoffs for the Lightning despite the team’s top special teams unit striking twice with the man advantage in Game 2 versus the Stars.
Tampa Bay had converted on the power play in just four of its 17 games before that mini breakout in the series-equalizing win, meaning that in a large majority of games, those crucial opportunities to attack actually contributed to the opposition gaining momentum from its failures, rather than the other way around.
Between Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Mikhail Sergachev, there’s still talent on the top group even without Stamkos, but the two-time Rocket Richard winner’s presence heightens the threat level on the top power play. With Stamkos on the flank, the Lightning can hurt you from all areas of the ice from their half-court set with legitimate snipers stationed at each circle, which allows them to really stretch the ice on the penalty killers. Even if he’s merely a decoy, Stamkos will at least prevent the defense from crowding Kucherov and Point, who are the two biggest threats to score while only really working one side of the ice.
We witnessed maybe the best single moment from the Lightning special teams in Game 2, but Kucherov’s incredible set-up for Ondrej Palat on the weak side was also a reminder of what the Lightning are missing without their captain. In the clip below, Kucherov had to literally fake the opposing netminder, Anton Khudobin, out of position in order to make Palat dangerous from his spot — or the area of the ice Stamkos has made his living.
What a pass from Kucherov to Palat 🔥 pic.twitter.com/3kgOLPlItA
— Shayna (@hayyyshayyy) September 22, 2020
An extra shooter, an extra outlet, and one more thing to think about for the Stars penalty killers, Stamkos can bring one of the most dominant special teams units in the league back to life.
Meaningful shift work
To criticize the Lightning top six in the absence of their volume-shooting captain would be some seriously unfair nitpicking. The top line of Point, Palat and Kucherov has simply been the most dangerous attacking trio in the playoffs to this point, and whoever Jon Cooper uses on the second unit seems to run up significant edges in attempts, and limits exposure on their own preventative layers through consistent puck possession.
Anthony Cirelli, Alex Killorn and Tyler Johnson have done particularly well in two games versus Dallas, each hovering around a 69 percent share in total shot attempts in the series. But with all that possession, the truth of the matter is that the Lightning second line is struggling to produce meaningful moments of offense at even strength.
The Lightning might be sacrificing something by replacing, say, Johnson, with Stamkos, considering just how effective they have been in preventing the opposition from creating valuable opportunities of its own, but with Stamkos inserted into that second line, the chances of turning time on the puck into goals is raised considerably.
It likely wouldn’t force the Stars to change anything from a matchup perspective, but perhaps it helps the Lightning take advantage of the mismatches that seem to be slowly materializing, and force the divide in a series with little separating the two teams to this point.
The emotional lift
Stamkos’s teammates understand what he’s been through, both in previous seasons and only just over the last few weeks and months. And as much as the broken leg, the blood clots, and the other injuries and health concerns have taken opportunities away from their captain, they have to understand that his sacrifice in the bubble, and his inability to contribute on what could be the culminating run for this era of the franchise, might be the most challenging chapter of a career with no shortage of adversity to date.
As much as they want to win it for Stamkos, the Lightning would much rather win it with Stamkos. For that reason, his inclusion in the lineup would be an incredible jolt for a team that been beaten down by its opponents and the situation throughout the last 60 days living inside a hotel, out of a suitcase, and away from their loved ones.
If healthy enough to go, Stamkos is the Lightning’s ace in the hole.
And while it’s possible they won’t need that spiritual lift, it would sure be better if they did.
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