Odds are good that the Tampa Bay Lightning will make the 2016 NHL playoffs. They don’t have a spot locked down yet, but it would take a spectacular series of events to knock them out of the picture.
Assuming that they will be playing postseason hockey, the Lightning are going to have to figure out how to win consistently without Steven Stamkos.
The team’s leading goal scorer underwent successful vascular surgery on Apr. 4 and is expected to be on the shelf for at least a month. It could also take as long as three months for Stamkos to recover, and Dr. Karl Illig told the team’s official site that the forward will be reevaluated in two weeks.
Tampa Bay will be involved in the playoffs by then, and the fact that Stamkos may have already played his final game in a Lightning uniform can’t be ignored. That’s not something the team is focused on right now though. Alex Killorn spoke about the shape of the team on Monday, telling Dan Rosen of NHL.com the following:
“This is our group now. We have to win with this group… The belief is strong. It’s always strong. Those guys are huge parts of our team, but we still believe in this group that we have right now.”
Belief is one thing, but it’s not difficult to figure out why Killorn has confidence in his team despite Stamkos’ absence. While they’d obviously prefer to have the sniper in the lineup for the postseason, it isn’t like Stamkos single-handedly carried them to the Stanley Cup Final a year ago.
Across the last two postseasons combined, 18 active forwards have scored more goals than Stamkos — and four of those players come from the Lightning. Tampa is more dangerous with the former first-overall pick in the lineup, but they aren’t going to wither away without him.
In fact, head coach Jon Cooper has already put “The Triplets” line back together.
The trio of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov took the league by storm during the playoffs last year. Cooper will look to the line to create offense on a nightly basis now that Stamkos is out. Over the last two postseasons, The Triplets have combined for a whopping 35 goals. Tack on 10 from Killorn, and you start to see how this team will be able to survive without their captain.
On paper, Johnson appears to be in the midst of a down season, but he’s struggled with several injuries, including an issue with his wrist. Those can be difficult to recover from fully, but the forward seems to be coming around. Since the calendar flipped to February, he has scored nine goals and added 12 assists–good for 21 points in 29 contests.
That’s a big improvement over how Johnson was producing earlier in the season (it took him 12 games to notch his first goal) and the Lightning will need him to continue to ramp up his play as the pace picks up. He’s shown a knack for stepping up his game during the most important part of the season, and Tampa will be looking to The Triplet Line to do some damage.
The team could also use a bit more offense from Killorn, who has been placed on a third line with Vladislav Namestnikov and J.T. Brown. That’s another smart and fast unit that Cooper can call on to chip in on offense while wearing the opposition down.
Now would also be a great time for veterans like Valtteri Filppula and Ryan Callahan to elevate their respective games. Filppula’s overall point totals are in decline for the third consecutive season, so no one should expect miracles from the 32-year-old Finnish native. He’s still a two-way player who can help out on offense though, and Cooper has moved him to the left wing to play with Cedric Paquette and Callahan.If all these pieces aren’t enough, the organization still has Jonathan Drouin in the fold. He is listed as day-to-day with injury at the moment, but the playoffs are still several days away. If he is healthy in time for Tampa’s playoff run, there’s really no reason to leave him buried in the AHL. He has been excellent since rejoining the Syracuse Crunch, scoring seemingly at will and doing a ton of damage on the power play.
If there is one place in particular the Lightning will miss Stamkos, it’ll be on the power play. This is already the 25th-ranked unit in the league. Missing the one-timer option from Stamkos probably isn’t going to make things go much more smoothly. Drouin is a player who knows how to work with the puck off of the wall though, and could give the Lightning a shot in the arm with the extra man.
It seemed unfathomable a few months ago, but things just may be coming together for Tampa and Drouin. His public trade request backfired and sitting out a portion of the season may or may not have been the thing to do, but that is in the past now. The Lightning have one goal in mind right now, and that’s win the Stanley Cup. They’ll deal with Stamkos and a potential contract for him this summer, but there’s not much they can do about it at the moment.
For now the Lightning have a few games to figure out how to play offense without Stamkos. The results have been a bit mixed so far, but it’s a positive that Cooper will have a few more games to figure his preferred line combinations out. This group has remained mostly static over the last few seasons, and that familiarity could be a saving grace as Stamkos recovers.
Pushing through the Eastern Conference without their captain won’t be easy, but the Lightning are deep enough and have enough offensive weapons to make a go of it.
Stats appear courtesy of Hockey-Reference.com and are accurate through games played on Apr. 4.