Steven Stamkos' Health Issues Make Lightning's Future Look Bleaker Than Ever

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistApril 4, 2016

Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) plays in an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

It has been a trying season for the Tampa Bay Lightning, and it got a lot uglier over the weekend with the news that team captain Steven Stamkos would miss between one and three months after being diagnosed with a blood clot in his arm.

The Associated Press' Stephen Whyno tweeted the details Saturday:

The loss of Stamkos, possibly for the entirety of the playoffs, would be a heavy blow to any team. There are unique circumstances at play for the Lightning, however, which make this injury even more tragic from a team perspective.

To appreciate the situation, we need to rewind a little less than a year. The Chicago Blackhawks eliminated the Lightning in six games in the Stanley Cup Final, but the future was bright for Tampa Bay. Not only had the club’s management, led by general manager Steve Yzerman, put a strong club together, but the team was also young enough that a bright future seemed certain.

Players who had not yet hit their 26th birthday tallied 83 percent of the team’s goals (54 of 65) during that playoff run. Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat, the lethal "Triplets" line, were all younger than age 25, and with the similarly young Stamkos (25) and Victor Hedman (24) holding down the No. 1 spots at centre and on defence, respectively, this was a team that was supposed to come back better.

Instead, Johnson and Palat (among others) have struggled through disappointing campaigns. Another key building block, 2013 No. 3 pick Jonathan Drouin, has been a sideshow for the team all year, with a trade demand, a holdout and a public standoff all part of the soap opera.

Most critically, though, Stamkos failed to re-sign with the team. As of July 1, he’ll be an unrestricted free agent.

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Yzerman put on a brave face in his press conference announcing the news of Stamkos' injury.

Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman
Lightning general manager Steve YzermanChris O'Meara/Associated Press/Associated Press

“We want him to remain with the Lightning,” Yzerman said, “and we’re hoping at the right time we can make that happen.”

It isn't a great sign that the "right time" hasn't come yet.

Stamkos told ESPN.com’s Pierre LeBrun and Scott Burnside in January 2015 that he hoped to re-sign with the team that summer, which didn’t happen. This past January, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported that the Lightning had made an offer with an annual salary in the $8.5 million range.

A few weeks prior to the trade deadline, Stamkos' agent, Don Meehan, told Sportsnet 590’s Bob McCown and John Shannon (via Sportsnet's Scott Lewis) that discussions had been “productive” but declined to answer a question regarding whether his client wanted to stay with the team.

Tampa Bay could have moved Stamkos at the trade deadline, getting some kind of asset in return and ensuring that the star centre didn’t leave for nothing over the summer. Sensibly, Yzerman decided not to do that. The whole point of asset management is to build a Cup contender, and with the Lightning being plausible Cup challengers, he decided to hang on to a vitally important piece of the puzzle.

The problem now is that Yzerman could plausibly find himself with the worst of both worlds. Not only could Stamkos potentially walk away from Tampa Bay on July 1, but the Lightning could also lose out on the short-term benefit of his play for the entirety of their playoff run.

The chances of the team going on a lengthy run are hurt not only by the absence of Stamkos but also the loss of workhorse defenceman Anton Stralman, the club’s No. 2 blueliner. Just over a week ago, Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reported that the rearguard would be out indefinitely with a broken leg:

Lightning coach Jon Cooper
Lightning coach Jon CooperJames Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

“It's Stralman and Stamkos. What can you say?” coach Jon Cooper grimly told Tampa Bay Times reporter Joe Smith. “Those guys are irreplaceable. Our depth will definitely be tested.”

This is, of course, a pessimistic view of the situation.

The exact timelines on the returns of Stamkos and Stralman to the lineup are up in the air; it’s possible that both will be back in time to take part in a playoff run, and the Lightning have enough depth to potentially win a playoff round or even two without those players.

It’s equally possible that the drawn-out negotiations between Stamkos and the Lightning will be resolved in the team’s favour prior to July 1.

Right now, though, uncertainty abounds. A team that a year ago seemed to be on the verge of becoming a perennial contender is now in survival mode in the short term and staring down a possible future without its most dynamic offensive weapon.

For fans of the team, there’s nothing to do but wait and hope. The immediate futures of Stamkos and Stralman should be resolved shortly, and the long-term marriage between Stamkos and the only NHL team he’s ever known within a few months. If it all breaks right, the Lightning could still contend this season and for many years to come.

If not, Yzerman will be facing the biggest challenge of his young career as a general manager.

Statistics courtesy of Hockey-Reference.com.

Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.

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