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How injuries impact the Lightning’s approach to the trade deadline

The Lightning lost five players in five games. Two top defensemen are still out. The NHL’s Feb. 24 trade deadline looms.
Tampa Bay Lightning's Pat Maroon, center, is congratulated by teammates, from left, Luke Schenn, Braydon Coburn, Mitchell Stephens and Cameron Gaunce after scoring against the Edmonton Oilers during the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, in Tampa, Fla. [MIKE CARLSON | AP]

TAMPA — Lightning fans can breathe again. Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Anthony Cirelli all returned to practice on Friday.

All three are available to play Saturday against the Flyers, but this injury scare could still raise questions with the Feb. 24 trade deadline looming.

Eleven days ago, the Lightning were in great shape. They were fully healthy and cruising. With the trade deadline three weeks away, the team had no real needs. There’s always room for improvement, but there weren’t glaring holes.

Related: Depth scoring comes through for the Lightning amidst injuries

The landscape looks different now.

The Lightning are still cruising along, having won nine straight games. But the injury bug bit hard.

In the span of five games, the team lost five players. The two leading scorers, top defensive forward and No. 2 defenseman all got hurt. The trio of forwards is returning quickly, but as they come back Tyler Johnson missed practice. Though he is also a “game-time decision” for Saturday.

Stamkos missed three games with a nagging lower-body issue. Cirelli and Kucherov were both hurt Tuesday at Pittsburgh and missed Thursday’s win over Edmonton.

Defenseman Ryan McDonagh and Jan Rutta, however, are both about a week into their “couple of weeks” before being re-evaluated.

What does that all mean for the Lightning at the trade deadline? It certainly reinforces the idea that a team can never have too much depth.

Eleven days ago, the Lightning had eight NHL defensemen and that seemed like a lot on a roster of 22 players. Two injuries in two games, and all of a sudden it wasn’t.

The Lightning have some depth in the organization, and called up Cameron Gaunce as insurance of anyone else going down. But if it came down to it in a playoff run, they might like to have someone else to call upon.

Even without McDonagh and Rutta, the Lightning have settled into a solid top two pairs in Victor Hedman-Erik Cernak and Mikhail Sergachev-Kevin Shattenkirk.

Braydon Coburn and Luke Schenn make a decent third pair. Schenn does not bring the same quality of skating, but he does add physicality. He hadn’t played in almost two months before getting in the lineup Saturday, and has played well in his four games since.

More forward depth wouldn’t have helped Thursday, when the Lightning had to play Gaunce at wing. That move came because of roster spots, not lack of players. Calling up someone else would have required putting Stamkos, Kucherov or Cirelli on injured reserve, which would have sidelined them for seven days.

Related: Defense shines as the Lightning extend their win streak to nine

It’s something of a fluke to have three of your top six forwards go down at once. When they’re healthy, and everyone is expected back possibly as soon as Saturday, the Lightning have seven forwards who can easily play in the top-six. That doesn’t even account for Yanni Gourde, who slotted into the top line well on an emergency basis Thursday.

Where the Lightning might want to add is the bottom six.

At full health, the Lightning are playing two rookies on the fourth line. Carter Verhaeghe and Mitchell Stephens have been playing well, especially together, but the team might like to have someone else on hand for a playoff run.

As for now, Tampa Bay’s health is paramount.

“The bottom line is, even if you make multiple deals at the deadline,” coach Jon Cooper said, “if you don’t stay healthy, it’s a moot point anyway.”

Contact Diana C. Nearhos at Follow @dianacnearhos.