TAMPA — When the Lightning hold their first training camp practice of the new season Monday morning, captain Steven Stamkos will be back on the ice.
Stamkos — who had two core muscle surgeries last year, the second Oct. 7 — said Sunday that he will be a full participant in camp, which opens Monday at the TGH Ice Plex, and expects to be ready for the season opener against Chicago on Jan. 13 at Amalie Arena.
“I’m excited about that,” Stamkos said. “It’s obviously been a very unusual offseason. Got to celebrate (the Stanley Cup win) and then went straight to surgery, so I’ve been doing a lot of rehab, and I’m at a place now where I’m definitely comfortable on the ice.”
After Stamkos had the first surgery in early March, he suffered what the team called a compensatory injury in June training when the Lightning returned from the NHL’s coronavirus pandemic shutdown.
Stamkos has played just one game since Feb. 25 of last season: Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final, in which he scored a memorable first-period goal against the Stars. After five shifts and 2:47 of ice time, he sat for the rest of the game, having aggravated his core area.
“I’m feeling much better than the last time I was on the ice, that’s for sure,” Stamkos said, smiling.
When Stamkos had the second surgery shortly after the Lightning won the Cup on Sept. 28, the team was optimistic he would be ready for this season. His return is even more important since the Lightning will be without leading scorer Nikita Kucherov, expected to miss the regular season recovering from surgery to repair a left hip injury.
Defenseman Victor Hedman said Stamkos looked strong in precamp skates.
“You’re getting one of the best goal scorers in the world back,” Hedman said. “(We’re) so proud of how hard he works all the time and how hard he prepares himself to get back into shape and get back into the play action. He looks unbelievable out there. I can see he’s ready to go, and he’s excited about it, and so are we as his teammates.
“We’re losing ‘Kuch,’ but we’re getting ‘Stammer’ back. So we’ve been down that road before without one of our key players.”
Even with Stamkos back, overcoming the loss of Kucherov — the Lightning’s leading scorer each of the past five seasons — will be difficult. Coach Jon Cooper said Kucherov is one of the five best players on the planet.
The Lightning retained most of their key players in the offseason, re-signing defensemen Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak, and forward Anthony Cirelli, who were restricted free agents. Placing Kucherov on long-term injured reserve helped the Lightning become salary cap compliant, and they traded fourth-line center Cedric Paquette and defenseman Braydon Coburn last month to the Senators to get salary cap flexibility.
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General manager Julien BriseBois said Sunday that he didn’t anticipate any more trades or signings before the beginning of the season.
“With Stamkos going out in the playoffs, we needed the guys to step up, and guys all stepped up in their own ways,” Cooper said. “And now with ‘Kuch’ out and no (Paquette), who is a regular with us, it’s just more opportunity for guys to show themselves and to help our team.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.
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