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Why Steven Stamkos’ latest injury feels so ominous

John Romano | For all the success he’s achieved, and all the promise that still exists, it’s natural for Lightning fans to feel a twinge of melancholy over the latest Stamkos news.
Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) will be out for six to eight weeks following surgery needed to repair an upper-body injury, the team announced Saturday.
Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) will be out for six to eight weeks following surgery needed to repair an upper-body injury, the team announced Saturday. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Mar. 1, 2020
Updated Mar. 1, 2020

TAMPA — You watch him skate, and you still see a young man. Maybe not the fresh-faced wonder from your memories, but an elite-level scorer with a shot that is envied by most of the NHL.

Steven Stamkos is far from finished and his final legacy is yet to be written.

So why then, does this latest injury feel so ominous?

Stamkos, 30, will miss the rest of the regular season and, quite likely, the first round of the playoffs after his scheduled surgery on Monday for a core muscle injury.

The official word is that he will miss six to eight weeks, but that’s both imprecise and probably a little hopeful. Sports core injuries, which commonly involve abdominal-area muscles and tendons tearing or pulling away from the bone, are fairly common in hockey but not necessarily easy to project.

Sidney Crosby had core muscle surgery in November and the Penguins said he would miss a minimum of six weeks. He ended up missing almost nine. Teammate Nick Bjugstad had surgery a week after Crosby and the team said recovery time would be a minimum of eight weeks. It’s been more than 14 weeks, and Bjugstad just now returned to practice.

The severity of the injury and individual circumstances clearly have an effect on how soon an athlete can return but, no matter how you view it, this is a fairly significant setback.

And that’s troubling for a player whose career, at times, has felt both blessed and haunted.

Only 10 players in NHL history have ever scored more goals before the age of 30 than Stamkos, and the eight who are eligible are all in the Hall of Fame. In other words, Tampa Bay fans have been fortunate to watch one of the league’s greatest scorers perfecting his game from the time he was a teenager.

And yet for all that glory, there is a twinge of melancholy. A nagging realization that Stamkos’ prime years have yet to translate to a Stanley Cup championship. Sometimes, the causes were unavoidable. Other times, like last season, they were more infuriating.

This is the seventh season in the Jon Cooper era in Tampa Bay, and it will be the fourth time that a major Stamkos injury will have an effect on the Lightning’s postseason aspirations.

There was the broken leg that kept him out of the lineup for four months in 2013-14 and, although he returned a month before the playoffs, he wasn’t the same player. In 300-plus games since 2009-10, Stamkos had averaged 1.17 points per night. In the first 20 games after the injury, his scoring tumbled roughly 25 percent to 0.85 points per game.

A blood clot sidelined him for almost two months in 2016 and, with Stamkos playing a grand total of 12 minutes in the postseason, the Lightning finished one victory shy of reaching the Stanley Cup finals.

A knee injury in 2016-17 wiped out nearly the entire regular season for Stamkos and it’s the only time in the Cooper era that Tampa Bay failed to reach the postseason.

So, are you worried yet?

There’s almost no chance the Lightning will fail to qualify for the playoffs next month, but don’t feel guilty about fretting over whether Stamkos will get meaningful playing time in the postseason.

Best-case scenario? The Lightning learn to play a tighter defensive game during Stamkos’ absence and his return in the postseason gives them a shot of momentum.

Worst-case scenario? Take your pick. He doesn’t come back at all, and the Lightning do not recover. Or he comes back too soon and risks further injury while adding little to the lineup.

Like I said earlier, this isn’t close to being the end of the road for Stamkos. The NHL’s all-time scoring list is cluttered with players (Brett Hull, Alex Ovechkin, Steve Yzerman, Teemu Selanne, Luc Robitaille) who didn’t win a Stanley Cup until they were in their 30s.

So there is no reason to fear that his best days have already passed him by.

But this franchise, more than most, knows how precious a shot at the title can be. The Lightning won the Cup in 2004 and then had the next season wiped out by labor strife, followed by a new collective bargaining agreement that tore the guts out of a special team.

The Lightning eventually regrouped and reached the conference finals or the Stanley Cup finals in three out of four seasons from 2015 to 2018 but kept falling a little shy. And then came last year’s historic regular season and subsequent playoff flop.

The point is you have every right to feel a little gloomy.

Stamkos is no longer the best player on the ice when the puck is dropped, but his offensive presence, faceoff skills, and calm voice in the locker room should not be minimized.

You know that because you’ve seen what has happened without Stamkos in the past.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.