TAMPA — With recent injuries to captain Steven Stamkos, wing Ryan Callahan and defenseman Anton Stralman, the Lightning has lost some of its top players.
It also has lost some of its strongest voices.
So it should come as little surprise that not only has the trio's absence left a void on the ice, it also has created a vocal leadership vacuum in the dressing room. And it couldn't have come at a worse time with Tampa Bay mired in a season-long four-game losing streak entering Saturday's game against the Capitals.
"That's been part of our issue as of late," coach Jon Cooper said. "There has been a little bit of hesitancy for guys to take control. Now that's going to happen."
It's starting to, Cooper insisted. Center Cedric Paquette pointed out that a few new voices, including center Tyler Johnson, were among the many players who spoke up during a pre-practice meeting Wednesday.
"They're forced to," Cooper said.
The Lightning has had plenty of practice playing without its strongest voices. It played the first two rounds of last year's playoffs with Stamkos and Stralman out with health issues. Still, Stamkos remained an active leader as he rehabilitated from a blood clot, providing insight and encouragement behind the scenes. Stamkos, who had knee surgery in Colorado two weeks ago, has kept in touch with some teammates.
"He's always watching," center Brian Boyle said. "He's still the captain of the team. And obviously we miss him. But we all have to do our part. Everyone can be a leader. We can motivate ourselves and have got to ratchet it up."
Some players would rather lead by example. That includes wing Nikita Kucherov, the team's leading scorer, who likely will be a first-time All-Star this season. Center Valtteri Filppula, the team's oldest player at 32 and its only Stanley Cup champion, is also usually reserved. Defenseman Victor Hedman has spoken up before, as has goalie Ben Bishop.
"Often times, you look to your best players, the guys that play the minutes, have an impact on the game," Cooper said. "Those are the guys that need to stand up and are starting to stand up, and that's a really good sign."
The message in Wednesday's meeting: Stick with the team's system and success will follow. Get back to the type of defensive efforts that enabled Tampa Bay to go on back-to-back lengthy playoff runs the past two seasons. And though Tampa Bay didn't win Thursday, a 5-4 loss to St. Louis, it considered the game a step in the right direction.
It took another step in that direction when it ended the losing streak with a 2-1 shootout win over the Capitals.
With general manager Steve Yzerman not expected to make a trade to shake up the team, it is up to the current group to turn this around .
"I think with our team, with what we've done the past couple years, I think everyone on this team is a leader," Johnson said. "Everyone has something to say. It obviously hurts losing those guys (Stamkos, Callahan). They're a big part of our team. We expect everyone else to step up. So at times like that, everyone's talking."