TAMPA — Steven Stamkos cannot be replaced. That was the consensus around the Lightning dressing room Saturday after it was announced that their captain would be out six to eight weeks for core muscle surgery.
But the Lightning have to figure out how to do that.
The Lightning don’t have one player who can take over Stamkos’ exact role. Few teams have someone who can do that for any player. Filling the hole created by the absence of Stamkos, who was scheduled to have surgery today, will be a matter of multiple players in different spots. Here’s a look at where the Lightning will be filling in.
The top line of Stamkos, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov jumps out at opponents. It hasn’t been a constant this season, but the Lightning have stuck with that group for a while now.
The Lightning have a couple of options to replace Stamkos on that line, but Ondrej Palat looks like the favorite.
He is a left-handed shot (Stamkos is right-handed) and doesn’t take faceoffs, but Palat is having a strong season after getting stronger in the offseason. At this point, Palat has played the same number of games as he did all last season (64) and has double the goals (16). He has filled in on the top line before and seems to be a good fit.
Tyler Johnson is another option. He, Point and Kucherov played together most of last season and were one of the league’s best lines. Johnson hasn’t slotted into that role as much this season but has shown he can.
No one else on the Lightning is going to be able to post up in the left faceoff circle and rip off one-timers like Stamkos. Only one other player in the league can do that, and he plays for the Capitals.
Stamkos is responsible for nearly a quarter of the Lightning’s power-play goals this season (10 of 46). The unit managed without him in Saturday’s win over the Flames, though, with two goals on four opportunities.
Johnson replaced Stamkos on Saturday, but that wasn’t the only change. Anthony Cirelli took Alex Killorn’s spot, and defenseman Mikhail Sergachev quarterbacked in place of Victor Hedman.
Johnson is the likely candidate to take Stamkos’ spot. He is a right-handed shot who can score; he had one of the power-play goals Saturday.
Palat may also figure in the power-play plans. He played on the top unit some last year.
Stamkos exits the regular season second on the Lightning in goals with 29. He was on pace for another 40-goal season. So now where will those goals come from?
Kucherov leads the team with 31 goals, about a 40-goal pace with 19 games left in the regular season. Maybe he can score more, but asking your top scorer for more doesn’t always work out.
Brayden Point has fallen off the pace he set last year — 41 goals in 79 games — with 23 goals in 61 games this season. He’s capable of more. Palat has doubled his 2018-19 goal total, but might playing with Point and Kucherov spark more?
There are options beyond the top line. Yanni Gourde has scored four goals in nine games since breaking his epic 35-game drought. He’s known for tips and rebounds but had a nice wrist shot from the top of the circle Saturday.
Cirelli has shown a scoring touch this year (and a tendency to run into goaltenders), but he has slowed recently and is sitting at 15 goals.
Among defensemen, Kevin Shattenkirk and Sergachev have good shots. No team wants to rely on its defensemen for goals, but they might be able to contribute to the Lightning.
Stamkos played wing for most of the season but is still one of the Lightning’s top players inside the circle. He has taken the most faceoffs after the Lightning’s top centers, Point and Cirelli.
Point will see a bump in faceoffs, at even strength and on the power play. Stamkos’ role in those situations had been more of a luxury than a necessity.
Mitchell Stephens has already stepped up as a faceoff specialist on the penalty kill. He has played only 35 games this season and yet has taken the fourth-most faceoffs on the penalty kill.
The recent additions of forwards Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman, strong penalty killers who looked great as a pair Saturday, will also figure in.
Let’s let Killorn set the tone for what Stamkos means in the dressing room: “That’s something you can’t talk about enough. He wears the ‘C.’ He’s a leader. He’s been with this franchise for so long. He kind of sets the standard for most guys on this team.”
This Lightning team has plenty of leaders. Defenseman Ryan McDonagh has a strong presence, as does Hedman, whose leadership is less vocal. Killorn had already taken on a bigger leadership role this season.
Gourde also pointed to the trade-deadline additions of veterans Goodrow, Coleman and defenseman Zach Bogosian, who add to the leadership.
Contact Diana C. Nearhos at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @dianacnearhos.