TAMPA — The sight of Steven Stamkos participating in a full team practice Friday was as tantalizing for teammates as it was for Lightning fans.
"Certain things he does on the ice, you can tell this team is going to be a lot better with him," wing Alex Killorn said. "We're hoping to get him back as soon as possible."
The million-dollar question is when? There's no question the Lightning badly needs Stamkos as it fights for its playoff lives with 11 games to go. There's a glaring hole at center after two were dealt at the deadline and with three currently injured.
But Tampa Bay isn't going to rush Stamkos back, no matter the stakes, and that's the right call.
"The one way I guess to make sure he may play is to get into the playoffs," coach Jon Cooper said. "That's what we're trying to do here. He's the core of our franchise. Until doctors and Steven Stamkos say, 'I'm ready to go,' he's not going on the ice."
Doctors will be part of the decision, but ultimately this will be Stamkos' call. Stamkos will only return when he's 100 percent, and he truly doesn't know when he will. That's why he wouldn't commit to saying he'd return by the end of the regular season, as much as he desperately wants to.
"I've gone through stuff like this before," Stamkos said. "You start setting dates, that's when sometimes you set unrealistic goals."
It was interesting to hear Stamkos say that the initial prognosis of a four-month recovery was "out of the question" pretty quickly. He said it was realistically closer to five, which would be mid April, though his recent progress might have accelerated it.
The fact that Stamkos has been through several serious injuries is unfortunate and seems unfair, but it also helps him in this case. Having come back from a broken leg in 2013-14 and a blood clot in last year's playoffs, Stamkos knows how he should feel when he's ready to go. And it's not just physically.
"It helps me going through the leg thing," Stamkos said. "Taking that first hit or fall, stuff like that, when you trust the repair. (Friday) was a good step."
Stamkos had another good day Saturday, pushing himself hard for 30 minutes after a lot of his teammates left the optional morning skate. "Hopefully after a few more of those you gain confidence," Stamkos said.
Whether Stamkos returns Tuesday against Arizona or at all during the regular season remains to be seen. But you can tell there are many people around the league rooting for Stamkos to make it back.
Said Penguins star Sidney Crosby: "If there's anybody that's going to bounce back, it is him."
SLAP SHOTS: Killorn, the Lightning's player union rep, met with NHLPA chief Donald Fehr while the team was in New York last week and had plenty to discuss. The NHL's participation in the 2018 Olympics is in doubt, but Killorn said it's important to the players that they can go. And superstars will have to take the lead, such as the Capitals' Alex Ovechkin, who has said he plans to go even if the NHL doesn't agree. "They're really the ones that help the league be successful, so I think owners will have to listen to what they say," Killorn said. Another big topic is the salary cap, which could go up $2.5 million to $3 million next season, especially if players agree to the 5 percent escalator, a clause they've used every year but 2006-07 since the cap was instituted in 2005-06. But that would increase players' escrow contributions, which have been around 15 percent. "At what point do we have to be like, 'This escrow is getting out of hand,' " Killorn said. "We have an option in '19 to go back to the bargaining table (with an opt-out clause in the collective bargaining agreement), and we'll probably use that."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.