Steven Stamkos has taken the ice in Edmonton. He’s not ready to play, or even to participate in full practice sessions, but the Lightning captain is skating.
“He’s been skating on and off,” coach Jon Cooper said. “He’s on a rehab regime, and so a lot of days he’s either skating by himself or if we have optionals, he’s out there with the guys. There’s certain things he can and can’t do.”
Stamkos was on the ice with about half of the team in Monday’s optional practice. The two-minute, 54-second clip of practice showed Stamkos warming up and participating in a couple of drills
He hasn’t practiced since the postseason started, but the team never ruled out the chance of Stamkos playing. Now that he’s skating again, that starts to feel like a more real possibility, though Cooper specifically said “nothing’s changed in the playing department anytime soon.”
That Stamkos still isn’t a full practice participant means there’s another step or two before he gets into games. Just because he isn’t in a no-contact red or yellow practice jersey doesn’t necessarily mean he has been cleared for contact. Though his playing in a competitive mini-game is a good sign.
The Lightning have moved players from skating to playing quickly in the past, however. As defenseman Ryan McDonagh worked his way back from a foot fracture in the regular season, he only got a couple of practices in before playing.
The Stanley Cup final could start as early as Thursday if everything falls just right (Stars win Monday and Lightning win Tuesday). It seems like a stretch that Stamkos could be ready by then. But then again, defenseman Victor Hedman appeared to sprain his ankle in the final round-robin game and played in Game 1 of the playoffs three days later.
Though the team has found success without him, there’s no question Stamkos brings something to this Lightning team if and when he does return.
He has one of the best shots in the league. Given the success left wing Ondrej Palat, center Brayden Point and right wing Nikita Kucherov have had as the top line, Stamkos probably goes back to playing with center Anthony Cirelli and left wing Alex Killorn. He adds an offensive threat that makes it nearly impossible for an opponent to match up against either of the top two lines.
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The Lightning have been playing with a seven-defenseman lineup without Stamkos. Once he returns, they likely go back to a conventional format with four lines of 12 forwards.
To stick with the current setup, the coaches have to decide between scratching someone like forward Tyler Johnson, who doesn’t have a natural fit in an 11-forward lineup with Stamkos, or one of the fourth-line checking players like Cedric Paquette.
Stamkos needs to make some progress before that decision becomes necessary, however.
He was practicing with the team when it first entered the Toronto bubble, and said he felt the best he had since the injury on July 27. But shortly after that Stamkos encountered some kind of set back and hasn’t been able to skate with the team since.
Stamkos was in a video the team posted of players celebrating the five-overtime win over Columbus back on Aug. 11, but hadn’t been seen publicly since. Fans not seeing him, combined with Cooper’s cagey answers about Stamkos' status sparking rumors that he might have left the bubble.
The captain hasn’t played since Feb. 25. He had surgery to repair a core muscle March 2 and was expected to miss six to eight weeks, which at the time would have brought him to the first round of the originally-scheduled playoffs. Stamkos incurred another injury, what he called part of the ebbs and flows of rehab, while skating in small groups during the season pause. He returned to practice just before the team reported to Toronto, but it was short-lived.