TAMPA — Someone joked with Steven Stamkos that they knew his right knee was ready when they saw a clip of him dancing at his June wedding.
"They didn't see me ice it after," said Stamkos, smiling.
Whether Stamkos, 27, can return to his elite form is the No. 1 burning question in the NHL, as The Hockey News splashed on a recent cover. Stamkos' ability to bounce back could be the biggest factor in the Lightning returning to the playoffs.
Stamkos doesn't know when he'll completely be back. No one does. He's encouraged with how his knee responded after four preseason games, feeling better than he expected after missing 10 months.
Stamkos returned from a broken leg (2013-14) and blood clot (2015-16) to play the best hockey of his life. He's confident he can do it again, starting with Friday's opener against Florida.
"It may take some time. It might not," Stamkos said. "The only way you're going to find out is getting in a regular season games and putting yourself through that test."
Watching Stamkos in training camp, it was like he never left. He was flying up the ice, blasting his one-timers. He wasn't shying away from contact. The timing isn't there yet. But teammates sense a hunger in the four-time All-Star, and are betting on Stamkos once again being one of the NHL's best players.
"He will not fall short of that in any way," said Victor Hedman, one of Stamkos' best friends. "I saw him come back from (his broken leg) in Boston and play the best hockey of his life. There's more to come from him."
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What makes the injuries frustrating to Stamkos is that they were all "freak things."
"There was nothing I could have done differently," he said.
When Stamkos broke his right leg in November 2013, he got tied up by Boston defenseman Dougie Hamilton on a backcheck crashing into the post. The blood clot found in his collarbone area at the end of the 2014-15 season is rare in hockey players.
Then came Nov. 15 in Detroit, with Stamkos off to a hot start (20 points in 17 games). Stamkos got tangled with Red Wings forward Gustav Nyqvist, falling awkwardly. He hobbled off into the tunnel, never expecting the road back would be so long.
"You go for an MRI, you always think, 'Maybe it's something small, I'll be back in a month tops,'" Stamkos said. "Then when you get the news it's pretty devastating.
It was kind of like, 'Here we go again.' "
Stamkos said he never missed a game due to injuries in juniors and his first five years in the NHL. Now he had to overcome his third significant injury.
"You start contemplating, were there some things you did or didn't do in the past coming back to haunt you?" Stamkos said. "You have a lot of time to think."
• • •
The fact Stamkos had already gone through those rehabs before helped him with his latest.
This one was the most difficult recovery, at least physically. The six weeks on crutches. Regaining the muscle he lost in the leg. The scar tissue that never seemed to go away. And, as Wild forward Zach Parise, who had a similar surgery, says the toughest part is building your muscle memory for skating. "All of a sudden you think you're skating normal," Parise said. "And then you see yourself on video, and are like, 'Oh my gosh, am I even bending my knee?' "
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Parise, who had his torn lateral meniscus repaired in 2010, said it took him a year and a half to feel normal. Stamkos, who thinks the meniscus had been already partially torn, said every tear is different, and he hadn't found any hockey player with the same one.
Stamkos had to map his own road back. Cooper said the team trusted the captain's instincts, having learned from previous recoveries.
"He knew how he should feel when he comes back," Cooper said.
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The Lightning missing the playoffs might have been the best thing to happen to Stamkos. It allowed him to have a full summer of training Long-time trainer Gary Roberts, a former Lightning teammate, adapted the workouts for Stamkos' recovery. There were some single-leg stability exercises, grappling and gymnastic type movements to help his body just react. They had a breakthrough in August, when Stamkos was finally able to run on a track.
"That was big," Stamkos said. "I felt better on the ice after I started doing that stuff, and it's gone from there."
• • •
Stamkos didn't score a goal in the preseason, but he was aggressive, with six shots in Saturday's finale. It helps that Stamkos is playing with All-Star Nikita Kucherov, with the two having formed an instant chemistry.
"It's as close to me having that chemistry with (Marty) St. Louis," Stamkos said.
Kucherov said he learned from watching St. Louis how to play with Stamkos. "I always looked at them, and how they supported each other, how they talked, how they moved the puck," Kucherov said. Imagine what they could do together over a full season.
Cooper, who has seen Stamkos rebound after serious injuries, would probably agree with The Hockey News' answer to its burning question on the center bouncing back: (Heck) yes!
"There's no worry from any of us in that," Cooper said. "One thing is Stammer set a pretty high bar for himself. So you want him to race back to that spot. But it takes a bit of time. He's aware of that. We all are.
"But he's a 27-year-old kid, he's not 40. He's got a lot of miles left in those legs."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow@TBTimes_JSmith.