On Wednesday, the Tampa Bay Lightning issued an update on Steven Stamkos that raised as many questions as it answered. General manager Steve Yzerman confirmed that the knee injury suffered the previous night was a meniscus tear but offered no timeline and did not identify the course of treatment that player and club would be pursuing.
The lack of a timeline suggests that the Lightning captain could be out for a while. The good news, such as it is, is that we know Tampa Bay is better equipped than most teams to withstand the long-term absence of its most lethal goal scorer.
Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times spoke to a former team physician who suggested that without knowing details the possible length of absence could be anything from a couple of weeks to most of the season:
That’s obviously bad news. The current position of the Lightning—third in their division, with the four clubs immediately behind them all within four points—makes it worse. Yet we can be reasonably confident that the Bolts will muddle through because they’ve done it before.
In the 2016 playoffs, Tampa Bay advanced to the third round despite the long-term absence of both Stamkos and No. 2 defenceman Anton Stralman (also currently on the shelf). The same roster strengths that allowed the team to prevail at the most difficult time of the year should keep it competitive this season even if Stamkos’ absence ends up being measured in months rather than weeks.
The first of those strengths is centre depth.
The obvious names are those of Tyler Johnson and Valtteri Filppula. Johnson put up 72 points in 2014-15 and is the obvious fill-in candidate for Stamkos on the top line. Filppula, meanwhile, is coming off a disappointing 31-point campaign but has a long track record of producing when placed on a sheltered secondary unit. Brian Boyle’s ability to play tough minutes gives the coaching staff the luxury of taking that approach.
Those aren’t the only players worth mentioning, though. Vladislav Namestnikov has been a linemate of Stamkos for much of the season, but the 2011 first-round pick is a natural centre who could easily be shifted back to that position, allowing the Bolts to run three attacking lines and keep Boyle in his current role. Alexander Killorn also has history down the middle, though that is further in the past.
Also important is the fact that Tampa Bay has a diverse attack that doesn’t depend on a single player.
Last season, the Lightning had nine different forwards score at least 20 points at even strength and 13 who posted double-digit point totals in that discipline. Stamkos (38) and Nikita Kucherov (41) led the way, but less famous players such as Namestnikov (31), Killorn (33) and Ondrej Palat (30) were very much in the ballpark despite getting less ice time.
Further helping matters is the pending return of Jonathan Drouin, who could replace Namestnikov at left wing if the latter is bumped back to centre:
None of this changes the fact that the Lightning have lost one of the pre-eminent goal scorers in the game for an extended period of time. This is going to hurt, particularly on the power play, and a surge from Florida or Toronto could make the standings interesting indeed.
Nevertheless, the club is in relatively good shape to withstand the loss. Depth at centre and a multilayered attack are always important assets for an NHL team, but they become particularly important when injury strikes. Both will be tested in the coming weeks and months, just as they were in last year’s playoffs.