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Steven Stamkos reflects one year after broken leg

Lightning center Steven Stamkos holds his skate after banging into the goalpost while defending against Boston Bruins defenseman Dougie Hamilton, above, in November in Boston. Stamkos was taken off the ice on a stretcher after the play. [AP photo]
Lightning center Steven Stamkos holds his skate after banging into the goalpost while defending against Boston Bruins defenseman Dougie Hamilton, above, in November in Boston. Stamkos was taken off the ice on a stretcher after the play. [AP photo]
Published Nov. 11, 2014

CHICAGO

Steven Stamkos says he has seen the clip "a million times."

One year ago today, the Lightning captain broke his right leg sliding into a goal post in a game against the Bruins in Boston. A scary scene. A hush came over the TD Garden Center as one of the league's best players writhed in agony. After failing to get up, Stamkos remained face down, pounding the ice four times. One can see on the video that when head athletic trainer Tommy Mulligan came to his aid, Stamkos said, "It's broken."

Stamkos, 24, said he hasn't thought about that moment much since the season started, other than when he's asked. But there's a daily reminder that his surgically repaired leg doesn't feel quite right, whether it's stiff when he gets up or tender at the spot where there's still one screw remaining.

Stamkos, who enters tonight's game against the Blackhawks with a team-high 10 goals, knows this could be the new norm. However, he feels much better than he ever thought he would and said there's a "night and day" difference mentally.

"That's the million-dollar question: Is it ever going to feel the same way as before?" Stamkos said. "It may never. I'm hoping one day you wake up and there's no little pain, no discomfort, just feels like a regular leg. I don't know if that's going to happen."

Stamkos might have been playing the best hockey of his career and was a dominating force. Though he is not there yet, coach Jon Cooper says he's getting "really close."

"If he scores 10 goals every 15 games, I think we're in pretty good shape," Cooper said.

The Lightning is not a better team without Stamkos. But it might be a better team now, co-leading the league with 23 points, because it had to play without Stamkos for 45 games last season. That accelerated the development of rookies like Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, thrust into first-line roles before becoming Calder Trophy finalists. J.T. Brown got called up after Stamkos' injury and became a key cog on the penalty kill.

Johnson said the mood around the team was "hush hush" after Stamkos' injury. But he admits he benefited from the opportunity it created.

"I definitely got thrown into situations a lot earlier than I probably ever would have," said Johnson, who has five goals and a team-high 18 points this season. "I don't know how things would have been different. I was playing the third line, about 10 minutes a game, and all of a sudden, you're bumped up to 20 minutes, it's quite a big difference.

"You never want something like that to happen, but at the same time, it helped me out trying to adjust my game to the NHL."

And having success without Stamkos, finishing third in the Eastern Conference last season, made it a little easier mentally to handle the loss this season of top defenseman Victor Hedman, out since Oct. 18 with a fractured finger. Tampa Bay is 8-2 since he went down.

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"It's like, 'Okay, we've been through this before,' " Cooper said. "We know how to get through this."

Just 17 games into his first full season as NHL head coach, Cooper had lost his best player — for a long time. "(I thought) probably something in my head like, 'This is not going to work out so well,' " he said.

Cooper said it was a test for everyone, and they've all passed. Stamkos says he doesn't think about his leg on the ice and does everything instinctively. There was one scare Sunday when Stamkos came to the bench shaking his leg, but Cooper quickly found out he was okay. Cooper said it might take this full season before Stamkos is his old self.

"The scary thing is," goaltender Ben Bishop says, "he's only going to get better."

Contact Joe Smith at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.

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