Maybe the little black cloud that has hung over Steven Stamkos is about to be lifted.
The captain of the Tampa Bay Lightning — out since March 2 after core muscle surgery — is said to be champing at the bit to get back into the lineup for the Stanley Cup final in Edmonton.
His recovery time was supposed to have been six to eight weeks, but Stamkos has been deemed “unfit to play” since the expanded NHL playoffs started in July, following the league’s four-month pause because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Coach Jon Cooper has been cagey about the star centre’s status, but recently moved to a more optimistic “tune in” to find out if the captain will play. Stamkos has been working out with the team, and took in the morning skate prior to Monday night’s Game 2 against the Dallas Stars.
“He’s our leader. He’s the guy that drives the bus in the locker room,” said forward Pat Maroon. “Honestly, it’s so good to see him skating again and being around the boys. That’s the most important thing, having him in the locker room again and seeing the smile on his face and seeing him skate. Hopefully he gets back in soon. Don’t know how he’s feeling, but obviously he’s skating, so that’s a good sign.”
No question, this has been a frustrating time for Stamkos.
“I know it’s killing him more than anyone else not to be in the lineup,” said Cooper. “He’s inching his way closer, there’s no doubt. But you don’t get this many chances to get where we are.
“So, A, you want to be part of it, which he has. He’s helped the group with the mental side of things. But he also wants to be part of it on the ice as well. He’s fighting his way to get back. We’re not sure when that’s going to be. We’re hopeful he’ll be able to come back at some point in this series. But if he’s not on the ice, he’ll been an influential leader off the ice.”
Stamkos put on his Tampa sweater after the Lightning eliminated the Islanders in the Eastern Conference final, all smiles as he posed with teammates and touched the Prince of Wales Trophy.
As for that little black cloud, it’s been raining on the two-time Rocket Richard winner for the last six years:
- He missed three games because of injury in his rookie season, then none in the next four until a broken leg on Nov. 11, 2013 — which cost him a spot on Canada’s Olympic hockey team, which won gold.
- On April 2, 2016, the Lightning announced Stamkos was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, requiring surgery that cost him most of the playoffs. He returned for Game 7 of the Eastern final, losing to the Penguins.
- On Nov. 15, 2016, Stamkos tore the lateral meniscus in his right knee, costing him the rest of the season. Tampa failed to make the playoffs.
Then this year, on March 2, Stamkos had core muscle surgery after putting up 66 points in the regular season, second on the team behind last year’s Hart Trophy winner, Nikita Kucherov.
Cooper said the Lightning wouldn’t activate Stamkos until he’s ready to resume his big-minutes role, eschewing the idea that he could just see power-play duty.
“You have to make sure the player is conditioned enough,” the coach said. “There’s no way you would put a player into a game when you have limited roster spots just to play a specialized position, not at this time of the year. And especially because guys have bumps and bruises and you need every guy to contribute.
“He wouldn’t want that, either. I don’t think anybody wants to go into a game and sit on the bench the whole time. If you’re going to get into the lineup, you have to be … ready to play minutes and contribute.”
Still, teammates would welcome him back no matter how much he plays.
“Stamkos is a superstar in this league,” said forward Blake Coleman. “To some extent it doesn’t matter how much time he’s had off. He gives the best of himself. That’s the way he is.
“Honestly, an 80 per cent Stamkos is better than most players in this league.”
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