If you became a Lightning fan on November 12 of 2013 or later, then it’s probably impossible for you to understand exactly what it felt like to be a Lightning fan on November 11. Everyone who was a fan that day knows exactly what I’m talking about even if they haven’t read the title to this article. On November 11, 2013, the Tampa Bay Lightning visited the Boston Bruin’s for the day’s only NHL game. It was broadcast nationally. So the entire continent (let alone the rest of the world) got to experience our nightmare.
Steven Stamkos had gone into that game on fire. There were legitimate debates being sparked, particularly in Canadian sports media, about whether or not he had overtaken Sidney Crosby as the best player on the planet. He had become a new and improved version of the Steven Stamkos we had all come to know and love. This new Stamkos was not only the lethal scoring threat he’d always been, but now he was getting physical in the corners, he was playing positionally sound defense, he was back-checking like a man afflicted with some terrible disease cured only by pucks. In short, he was showing signs that he was finally becoming the proverbial “complete” player, the “200-foot” player, the “two-way” player.
I guess it’s therefore a tad Shakespearian that Stamkos was in the middle of some serious haul-assery back into the defensive zone when he went crashing leg-first into a goal post and snapped said leg so gruesomely that the video looks like he had an extra knee joint installed in his shin bone. For about the next five minutes I don’t think any Lightning fan, anywhere, said a word. We watched Stamkos try and fail to get up a number of times and then we watched the stretcher come out. I’m pretty sure most of us thought the season was over. Or maybe I should only speak for myself. (When the five minutes were up we were pretty vocal in our panic.)
After months of rehabilitation, Stamkos returned just after the trade deadline of 2014. It was a great moment. Stamkos hit the ice with a C sewn to his sweater in the aftermath of He Who Shall Not Be Named’s departure. No ceremony, no fuss. The way it should have been.
But it was clear from very early on, to those of us familiar with Stamkos, that he wasn’t fully healthy yet. The shot was still there, yeah – the famous one-timer. But we’d grown accustomed over the last few years, and particularly in those 16 games, to Stamkos being so much more than that. The Stamkos that took the ice in March through April of 2014 was still fast, but he wasn’t Stamkos fast. He was still dangerous, but he wasn’t Stamkos dangerous. Everything about him was similar but not quite the same.
So it came as no surprise whatsoever when news began trickling out, until Stamkos finally just admitted it, that the new Lightning captain was nowhere near a hundred percent. Yet.
REASON #2 FOR LIGHTNING FANS TO BE EXCITED ABOUT THE 2014/2015 SEASON: Steven Stamkos is healthy again.
Stamkos is now reportedly back to 100% for the first time since that catastrophic day in Boston. So long as no goal-posts sneak up on him in any dark alleys over the summer, that should mean he’ll be back to his high-flying self come October when the Lightning open their season.
But there are a number of reasons to be excited beyond the obvious one. The biggest, in my mind, is that the team Steven Stamkos left in November of last year was not the team he returned to in March of this year. Forget the additions and subtractions to the lineup. Forget even that gaping hole on Stamkos’s right side where a point-per-game player had once been a fixture. The biggest difference in the Tampa Bay Lightning was Stamkos’s absence had forced the team to undergo a crash course in maturation during his time away.
On November 11, 2013, Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson were third line energy players. By March of 2014, they were two of the Bolts’ premiere scorers. Victor Hedman, in Stamkos’s absence, had finally emerged as a true #1 defenseman. Ben Bishop was a clear Vezina candidate. Val Filppula was now running the first powerplay unit. Guys like Nikita Kucherov and J.T. Brown, who had been lighting up Syracuse at the time Stamkos went down, were now fixtures on the Lightning third line.
And this is the team we’ll be injecting a fully healthy Stamkos back into. It’s a team that grew into themselves without him, and, more importantly, learned to win without him. This is no longer Steven Stamkos and the Tampa Bay Lightning; it’s now the Tampa Bay Lightning with Steven Stamkos.
That’s a good thing.
Of course, there are plenty of pessimists out there. Stamkos did, after all, benefit from a certain diminutive scoring dynamo stapled to his right over the last few seasons. And it might very well turn out that Stamkos needed said unnamed winger to reach his gaudy goal numbers.
But allow me to submit the following counter-point: as much as the team has changed, the way the team scores its goals has also changed.
While it’s true that the Lightning, for the time-being, have no proven premiere playmaker in the lineup, they are suddenly equipped with a number of skilled grinding forwards, the likes of which Stamkos has never had the benefit of playing with. There are no Ondrej Palats or Ryan Callahans in Stamkos’s past. He’s never played with puck-hounds of that level, players who’ll win possession in the offensive zone over and over, sometimes creating multiple chances. Stamkos, at even strength, has always been something of a score-on-the-fly type of scorer. But now he’ll be a key component in an offense that can effectively cycle the puck. While he might not be the beneficiary of as many tape-to-tape puck-on-a-pillow type passes, he’ll now have extra time in the offensive zone to get himself loose while guys like Palat and Callahan get their noses dirty and fight to get the puck to him.
It might not be as pretty as the old days, but my money’s on it being every bit as effective.
And let’s not forget that the Lightning still do have a couple of playmakers kicking around. Maybe they’re not eighty point guys, but they’re not too shabby either. One of them is Val Filppula.
A lot of long-time Bolt fans might not like me saying this, but I’m going to say it anyway: the Tampa Bay power play was vastly improved when Steven Stamkos returned to the lineup in March, but Stamkos has to share a lot of that credit with two men. One is Ryan Callahan, who gave the Lightning a much-needed net presence. The other is Val Filppula, who—and here’s where you might get upset—is better along the wall than his unnamed predecessor.
But the Lightning, going into the 2014/2015 season, have the kind of center depth that should make other team’s jealous. That means, if coach Jon Cooper chooses, he could pair Stamkos and Filppula up at even strength as well as the power play. That would leave Tyler Johnson to center the second line and Jonathan Drouin, who the organization believes is better suited to playing center than the wing, as the #3C.
Or perhaps it’s Drouin who’ll wind up playing with Stamkos right from the get-go. Given Cooper’s penchant for making young players earn their responsibility (see: Nikita Kucherov), it’s more likely that Drouin will start the year with sheltered minutes on the third line. But nothing is set in stone just yet. At training camp, Drouin should get a look or two on Stamkos’s wing, and if they find some magic? Drouin, who looks like the best playmaking prospect to come along in many years, could start his career lining up next to arguably the best goal-scorer of his generation.
But with all of this optimism, let’s not assume Stamkos will automatically have a career season. In fact, I would go so far as to say it’s unlikely. However, that’s not so much because of his new linemates, nor is it because of the period it could take him to adjust to them. It’s mostly because of something I mentioned way up near the top of the page. Stamkos started last year with a near-obsessive dedication to his two-way game. If that returns now that he’s back to 100%–Stamkos has been saying for years now that he would like to be a considered among the league’s most complete players—it could take its toll on his scoring.
It usually does. When an offensive player focuses a little more on the other end of the rink, when he stops lingering in the scoring zone for that extra second or two in hopes he’ll get another chance, when he starts making high percentage, safe plays over and over again, more often than not his offense will take a backseat. We need only to look at our own general manager to see how that works. But the players who make that sacrifice also tend to become better players, and, more importantly, their teams tend to win a lot more games.
In closing, I want to go back to those first 16 games of last season one more time. Because something interesting happened. This was, remember, directly after the Lightning had passed the captaincy on from Vincent Lecavalier to that what’s-his-name who captained the team up until March 5 of last year. But when the Lightning took the ice in October, even though Stamkos wasn’t wearing the C yet, it was clearly his team. He was the guy leading by example on the ice. He was the guy exemplifying what we now think of as “Jon Cooper hockey.” Stamkos, despite having all the skill of, at worst, a top five player in the world, was showing up to the rink each night with a lunchbox and overalls and setting an example for the team’s abundance of rookies.
That’s why it was so fitting that the Lightning were low key about putting the C on Stamkos upon his return in March. Because the reality is this has been his team for a long time. And as good as it was to see him step onto the ice with that C rightfully sewn onto his chest last March, it’s going to be even better to see him step onto this ice this October, with both that C on his chest and, finally, the entirety of his skillset at his disposal.