With veteran wing Ryan Callahan out at least 3-4 weeks with an upper body injury, the natural question is who will fill his shoes?
"I don't know if anyone can," coach Jon Cooper said.
That's not to say the Lightning (26-6-2) can't win without Callahan. There are others who can slide into the fourth line like J.T. Brown. Cory Conacher took Callahan's spot on the penalty kill in Saturday's morning skate.
But Cooper's point is that Callahan's contagious presence on the ice, and his respected voice in the room, are very difficult to replace with one person.
"He's such a big part inside our room," Cooper said. "The leadership core has got to bind together, and it's one of those situations where he'll still be around our team, won't be in our lineup. He's a big loss because he's kind of a heart and soul guy for our team. So we've got to regroup and move on without him for a few weeks."
There was no callup Saturday, and it doesn't sound like one is coming in the immediate future. Tampa Bay appears to be going with 11 forward, seven defensemen lineup tonight against the Avalanche, an alignment Cooper has used a lot this season. Defenseman Braydon Coburn, who missed the last six games, looks like he'll be back, with Andrej Sustr in and Slater Koekkoek, Brown out. Backup Peter Budaj is in net.
Brown, a healthy scratch during the Lightning's streak, is expected to play right wing on Callahan's line with Cedric Paquette and Chris Kunitz. Brown can bring a similar physical style, energy. "He's done it in the past," Cooper said. "I'm sure he can moving forward."
Callahan had just six points in 29 games (one goal), but still impacted the game. It wouldn't be surprising if Callahan continues to travel with the team on upcoming road trips, like he and Steven Stamkos did in the second half of last season.
Callahan had worked so hard to come back after missing most of last year with nagging hip issues. This has to be a punch to the gut.
"He's in good spirits," linemate Chris Kunitz said. "He's definitely here to support his teammates. He's a character guy, been a captain for another organization, and is a great leader in the room."
Callahan's injury could have a ripple effect on Cory Conacher. Once Conacher reaches the 10 cumulative NHL game threshold this season – or 30 days up – he'd have to clear waivers in order to get sent back to AHL Syracuse. Conacher is likely to play in his eighth game tonight. Would imagine either Conacher stays beyond the 10-games, or Tampa Bay could decide to swap out Conacher after Tuesday's game in Vegas for someone like Adam Erne, a power-forward who has been earning raves in the Crunch's 10-game winning streak.
IMPACT ON DEADLINE?
Many have asked whether Callahan's injury will lead the Lightning to want to pursue another winger at the Feb. 26 trade deadline. Wouldn't rule out Tampa Bay evaluating its options leading up to the deadline. But I'm sure part of it depends on how Callahan recovers. If Callahan is re-evaluated after 3-4 weeks (mid-January) and it's determined it's a longer-term injury, then that could create more of a need. Best-case scenario is Callahan is back in a month or so. In the meantime, the Lightning does have some internal options it can evaluate, such as Conacher, Brown, Erne, etc. Anthony Cirelli has played well with the Crunch, as has Russian winger Alex Volkov, with Crunch coach Benoit Groulx saying it's "when, not if" the first-year pro reaches the NHL.