It remains to be seen when — or if — captain Steven Stamkos rejoins the Lightning lineup this season.
By all accounts, Stamkos is on schedule for an expected four-month recovery from mid November surgery to repair a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee. GM Steve Yzerman maintains there's still no set return date.
More important than when Stamkos comes back is how he feels and performs when he does. Though surgeons say elite athletes are expected to return to their previous level after this procedure, it doesn't always happen right away.
Just ask Wild wing Zach Parise, who had Stamkos' surgery to the same knee in November 2010.
"I'd say it took probably a year and a half to get back to feeling back to normal," Parise said. "That's what my therapist said, six months to heal, a year you feel better. But to get back to that level for me, I feel like it was almost the following Christmas."
Everyone heals differently. And not every tear is the same size. But if Stamkos' recovery is similar to Parise's, that would mean he might not feel the same until midseason next year. The good news, Parise says, is he hasn't had any issues with the meniscus in the six seasons since.
"It's a longer process," Parise said. "But in the long run, it's healing better."
Parise played all 82 games the season after surgery, with 31 goals and 38 assists. He has still been a productive player, now in his fifth season with the Wild. But he hasn't reached the same goal, assist or point totals of the two seasons before surgery.
Parise was 26 when he had surgery, the same age as Stamkos, who was playing the best hockey of his career when he got hurt Nov. 15 in Detroit.
Stamkos had 20 points in 17 games (nine goals, 11 assists), thriving after signing an eight-year, $68 million deal last summer.
"It's just too bad, you want a great player like that not to have this major surgery," Parise said. "(Stamkos) was on fire."
Tampa Bay was 10-6-1 when Stamkos went down. Without Stamkos, the Lightning is 15-18-6 and facing long odds to make the playoffs. Tampa Bay (25-24-7) is scoring a half a goal fewer a game (from 3.1 to 2.5), its power play — with Stamkos typically the main focus — dropping from 23.9 percent to 19.5.
Coach Jon Cooper said Stamkos' absence created a "major trickle down effect," thrusting Tyler Johnson into a No. 1 center role, thus attracting more difficult defensive matchups.
"It's not just you're losing an elite scorer," Cooper said. "What does it do to Tyler Johnson and Valtteri Filppula? The best (defensive) pairs were on Stammer's line now move on to the next one. He's a big right-handed shot on the power play, he's our captain, he's our leader.
"Throw (injured wing Ryan Callahan) into the mix, and you're pulling a lot out of the room. It's not just his ability to score. It's all the other things that has a trickle down effect."
Stamkos is just more than three months into his rehab. He has been doing off-ice and pool workouts but has yet to skate with the team. Parise said it took him a month from the time he began skating on his own to return, with the most challenging part regaining his form.
"You're using your other leg, so much compensation," Parise said. "So all of a sudden you think you're skating normal. And then you see yourself on video, and are like, 'Oh my gosh, am I even bending my knee?' Just to get that repetition, that muscle memory, is tough."
Parise's recovery took five months, but he points out his situation was different because his Devils weren't going to make the playoffs. He played in one game at the end of the season.
"It was more like, 'Make sure you're ready for next year, I know you want to get back, but make sure you're healthy,' " Parise said.
You wonder if the same should apply to Stamkos, especially if the Lightning falls further out of the playoff picture.
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.