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Lightning’s Steven Stamkos might have been nearing return. Where is he now?

Before the NHL (and the world) was put on pause, the Lightning captain was recovering from core muscle repair surgery. He’s still doing so.
Lightning center Steven Stamkos, pictured during warmups before a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in February at Amalie Arena.
Lightning center Steven Stamkos, pictured during warmups before a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in February at Amalie Arena. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Apr. 3, 2020
Updated Apr. 4, 2020

TAMPA — In a world without the coronavirus, Steven Stamkos might be nearing a return to the ice. The Lightning would have played their final regular-season game Saturday and been getting ready for the playoffs, and their captain would have been part of the plan.

Stamkos had surgery to repair a core muscle injury nearly five weeks ago, March 2. His recovery was expected to take six to eight weeks, which meant Stamkos possibly could have returned in the first round of the playoffs if the NHL hadn’t put its season on hold March 12.

If the league resumes play at some point this season, Stamkos should have had enough time to reach full health. If the playoffs happen this summer, Stamkos would be ready.

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What is the injury?

A core muscle injury is sometimes referred to as a sports hernia, though the injury isn’t a hernia.

A hernia involves the intestines poking through weakened musculature. A core muscle injury involves tears where the lower abdominal muscles meet the groin.

Ryan Lingor, a Rangers team physician and primary sports medicine physician at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, says a core muscle injury is most common in sports such as hockey and soccer, in which players are required to hyperextend their legs.

“It sucks,” said Flames center Sean Monahan, who had two such surgeries during the 2017-18 season. “The skating motion is when you feel it the most. That was tough. It’s more so annoying than anything. Sometimes you can’t feel it, and once you step on the ice, it comes right back. That was the frustrating part.”

In some cases, physical therapy can repair the injury. Injuries requiring surgery vary in their extent. In the most severe cases, recovery can take three to six months. Flyers center Claude Giroux said it took him about nine months to feel like himself after core muscle repair and hip surgery in May 2016.

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Stamkos’ injury was on the milder end of the range requiring surgery.

The core muscle injury was not the injury that took Stamkos out of the lineup two weeks before he had surgery. His three-game absence at the beginning of February was due to a groin injury.

It’s possible the groin injury had something to do with the core muscle injury, given that the affected areas are connected, but doctors couldn’t tell for sure.

How is the recovery?

Once they knew no one would be playing in April, the Lightning and Stamkos slowed his recovery process. Six to eight weeks was enough time, but it’s always safer to take a slower, longer-term approach if possible.

How quickly players come back varies greatly, in part depending on the severity of the injury.

The Penguins’ Sidney Crosby returned to play just under eight weeks after having core muscle surgery Nov. 14. Lightning defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk was closer to six weeks when he had the procedure done in 2015 while he was with the Blues.

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Bruins center Patrice Bergeron had the surgery in the 2017 offseason, so he took his time with the recovery.

“When you have less time, I’m sure there are ways to go around it and to feel good,” Bergeron said. “For me, it was right before the season, so we took it slow.”

The key to recovery is working the muscles without damaging anything else.

“You could either have an issue with the repair itself,” Lingor said, “or you can compensate and cause an issue to a different body part because everything is trying to make up for that vulnerable spot.”

Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh had the procedure done while playing for the Rangers. Defenseman Anton Stralman had the surgery done at the end of last season before leaving the Lightning in free agency.

“Those muscles and that area is so crucial to our game,” Shattenkirk said, “so you just have to be patient with it and make sure you feel 100 percent.”

Contact Diana C. Nearhos at dnearhos@tampabay.com. Follow @dianacnearhos.