In one of his first press conferences after the injury to Steven Stamkos, Lightning coach Jon Cooper plainly stated: “We can’t replace Steven Stamkos.”
He’s right – there isn’t one player on the team that can do what Stamkos can. In fact, there are very few players in the world, if any at all, that can do what Stamkos can. But Stamkos’ absence doesn’t mean that the Lightning can’t continue having success on the ice this season.
After Stamkos got hurt, pundits around the hockey world fell into one of two camps. First, and most vocally, there was the “The Lightning Are Finished” group. Too bad the Bolts got off to such a great start, they opined, because now, without their superstar, they can look forward to a precipitous drop down the standings. At the time of his injury, Stamkos had 14 goals and 23 points through 17 games (really, 16 and a half). No other Lightning player had more than seven goals. The Lightning wouldn’t be able to replace his offense, they concluded – therefore, the Bolts would begin losing the close games they had won at the start of the year.
The second camp was slightly less pessimistic. The Lightning players would compensate for his absence reasonably well in the short-term, but as weeks turned into months, they wouldn’t be able to maintain that artificial level. Over time, the Lightning would sink. Maybe not immediately, but eventually.
I don’t know what is going to happen. It’s possible that one of these scenarios will come to pass. But as someone who’s seen every minute of every Lightning game this year, I think there is a way for the Lightning to maintain their early-season success while Stamkos rehabilitates.
Before I detail the specifics of how they can do it, let’s examine exactly what makes Stamkos such a special player. In other words, what is Tampa Bay going to be missing without him?
In today’s NHL, it’s very difficult to score goals. Coaches are smart – and they devise systems that minimize opposition scoring chances. Defending teams collapse in the d-zone, allowing players to block shots and prevent attempts from even getting to the goaltender. The top teams in the league often don’t even allow the opposition to possess the puck for an extended stretch, let alone generate dangerous scoring chances. Facing these obstacles, clubs speak about the need to score “dirty” goals; ones that are more a function of hard work than pure skill. Get the puck to the net, crash the net, look for rebounds.
Stamkos is capable of scoring those “dirty” goals, of course, but those aren’t the only kind he can score. In that regard, he’s an opposing coach’s worst nightmare. A team can defend Stamkos properly – in other words, they can prevent him from getting to a dangerous scoring area, but it may not matter. Goalies will save most long-range shots from the side, but not a Stamkos shot from such a spot. A goaltender may even know what’s coming from Stamkos, but still be unable to stop it. That’s why Stamkos is a game-changer – unlike nearly every other player in the NHL, he can score from anywhere, at any time in the game. And his blazing speed gives him enough time and space to release that lethal shot.
Scoring goals isn’t all that Stamkos brings to the Lightning, though. He’s a team leader, on and off the ice. He’s an excellent passer, as evidenced by his assist total. This season, his defensive game had never been better – note that his injury occurred on a play in which he was hustling back to the defensive zone – and he was a plus 11 through those first 17 games. His faceoffs were improving, too – after a slow start to the season in the faceoff circle, he had been regularly winning more than half his draws in the games leading up to the injury. For the first time in his career, he was playing on the penalty kill and, not surprisingly, scored a shorthanded goal earlier this year. (He almost had another. His 14th and most recent goal, scored in Detroit on November 9, came four seconds after a Lightning penalty expired).
So back to the title of this piece, except this time asked as a question: “How Can The Lightning Continue Their Success While Stamkos Rehabs?” There are four critical components.
- Team Defense: The biggest difference between this year’s Lightning team and the ones that missed the playoffs the last couple of years has been an improvement in team defense. As the term states, it’s “team” defense. Stamkos was a part of that team defense, but so are the other skaters that dress for every game. As I’ve written a number of times already this year, the Lightning’s defensive journey is a work in progress. They’ve gotten better, but they’re not yet operating as a finely-tuned machine. Generally, they’ve been crisper in d-zone breakouts, puck management, limiting turnovers and d-zone coverage. But there have also been games – or parts of games – in which the Bolts have struggled in these areas, particularly with puck management and turnovers.
Case in point: the Lightning have gone 2-1-0 since Stamkos’ injury. In their wins over Montreal and Anaheim, they played terrific team defense. It allowed them to have the puck for most of those games – and they allowed only one goal in each. On Saturday in Phoenix, however, the Lightning were more leaky. While it wasn’t the only reason why they lost, 6-3, it was a contributing factor.
A couple of days ago, Cooper addressed one way that the team can look at Stamkos’ absence. “If Stamkos accounted for three-quarters of a goal per game, then maybe we have to allow three-quarters of a goal per game less.”
With or without Stamkos, the work to get better in this area continues – and there’s no reason to believe that, as the season progresses, the Lightning players won’t reduce those hiccups even more.
- Goaltending: This is another area of improvement for the Bolts. Ben Bishop has been outstanding this year, accumulating 13 wins. Anders Lindback has gotten less work – and his record is affected by the fact that he’s been outdueled by Boston’s Tuukka Rask in two of his four starts – but he also chipped in an important shootout win in Florida.
For the Lightning to continue having success this year, the goaltending will have to be just as good as it’s been. Bishop already has stolen two games for the Lightning (at Chicago on October 5 and versus Edmonton on November 7) – in those contests, the Lightning were outplayed. In many of the games that have been evenly played, Bishop has outperformed his counterpart – the Lightning’s 4-2 win over St. Louis on November 2 is an example. And in the contests in which the Bolts have outplayed their opponent, Bishop has made important saves at key times, so that the other side doesn’t “steal” one from the Lightning. Look at Tampa Bay’s 2-1 shootout win over Montreal last week.
There have been just a couple of games this year in which the goaltending hasn’t been able to deliver a crucial save and help the team navigate through tough waters. If those games are still kept to a minimum, then the goaltending will give the Lightning a chance to win most nights.
- Making Plays: With solid team defense and goaltending, the Lightning can keep games close. But they’ll need to make some plays in the offensive zone so they can score enough to win. As I mentioned earlier, they don’t have another Stamkos. But it’s not as if the cupboard is bare. The Lightning have plenty of skilled players on their team. Marty St. Louis, Valtteri Filppula and Teddy Purcell can make plays. So can youngsters Tyler Johnson, Richard Panik, Brett Connolly, Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat. Victor Hedman has become more of an offensive threat this year. And all players have shown a willingness to score “dirty” goals on tips and rebounds. It’s a matter, as St. Louis said after the injury, “of everyone stepping up, including me.”
One by-product of the Stamkos injury is that it created an opportunity for J.T. Brown. He scored a nice goal – his first in the NHL – on Saturday. Panik also netted one in that game, his first of the year. It’s true that the other players are going to have to “step up”, but they will get a chance to do that. It could mean more ice time and even looks on the power play.
It’s only been three games, but so far without Stamkos, the Lightning have done a good job of generating offense. In Montreal last Tuesday, the Lightning fired 45 shots at Carey Price – and he was the only reason why they didn’t score more than one goal. They netted five in a win over Anaheim. And even in the loss to Phoenix, the Bolts got three, which often is enough to win in the NHL.
- Resiliency: The Lightning have won four games this year when the opposition has scored first. They’ve also picked up two wins when trailing after two periods. There have been several other games in which the Lightning had a third period lead, surrendered it, but still managed to win. They are 6-0 in overtime and the shootout. This is a resilient bunch.
Cooper mentioned how the players are taking this on as another challenge. They aren’t deaf or blind – they know what’s being said and written about them now that Stamkos is out of the lineup. If the Lightning are going to succeed beyond the short-term, they will need to display that mental toughness we’ve seen in games already this year.
As I wrote earlier, I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I do believe that if the Lightning can excel in these four categories, they can keep winning, even without one of the best players in the world on the ice.