TAMPA — The Lightning won the Stanley Cup last season without one of their most skilled players, and if they’re going to get back to the postseason to defend their title, they’ll have to do it again.Steven Stamkos is back from offseason core muscle surgery and has shown during training camp that he is at full strength. But the team announced last month that star winger Nikita Kucherov will miss the regular season recovering from hip surgery.Kucherov is expected to rejoin the team for the postseason, but the Lightning have to get there first. Anything can happen in an abbreviated 56-game regular season, and a sluggish start can doom a team quickly.Stamkos was injured before the pandemic pause but still managed to have an impact in the postseason. His goal in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final will go down as one of the most memorable moments in Lightning history.Only Martin St. Louis’ goal in the second overtime of Game 6 of the 2004 Cup final in Calgary compares in terms of importance, momentum and storybook charm.“It was certainly unique,” Stamkos said of the way the Lightning won the Cup during a pandemic. “I don’t think anyone dreamt it up that way, in terms of how it happened and just everything that was going on in the world. But it’s still surreal.”Stamkos was able to celebrate with the Cup but underwent surgery soon afterward. He has no limitations as the season begins. Stamkos is the captain, the face of the team and still one of the league’s top goal scorers. He leads by example, but his words carry great weight.Now he must lead the Lightning through a regular season without Kucherov.“Obviously, missing Kuch this year is gonna be a big blow to us,” Stamkos said. “But we’ve done it in the past where guys have stepped up and played great in someone’s absence, so I think we’re comfortable in that.”It’s oversimplifying things to think that Stamkos’ return will compensate for Kucherov’s absence. The 27-year-old Russian has few peers on the ice. His 313 regular-season points over the past three seasons trail only Edmonton’s Connor McDavid (321). Kucherov’s 53 postseason points over the same stretch lead all skaters.“Grab five players in this league, and you can make an argument for them to be the best players on the planet,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “And out of those five players, I think you could put Nikita Kucherov in that group. So, unless you’re going to grab one of those other four players, and I don’t think any team is giving them up, you’re not replacing Kuch.“He’s been a massive part of our team. We’ve got a 56-game year, (and you figure) he’s probably going to be (involved) in 85 goals? Are we going to get back those 85 goals? Probably not all of them, but as a coaching staff we’ve got to devise ways to try and pick up the slack.”For now, Stamkos has taken Kucherov’s spot on the top forward line, alongside center Brayden Point and winger Ondrej Palat.Kucherov’s ice time will be as difficult to replace as his production. He averaged 18:52 — second among forwards — last season, and his 21:40 in the playoffs led all Tampa Bay forwards.But what makes Kucherov different is that he’s a wizard of a playmaker. He has such an uncanny ability to see the ice and find teammates in positions to score, he slows the game down at both even strength and on the power play.The Lightning have had to be creative in compensating for Kucherov’s absence. They’ve experimented with different looks on the power play, from putting Point at Kucherov’s spot in the right circle to provide more movement to giving Mikhail Sergachev and his big shot a look there.“It takes the whole unit to work,” Sergachev said. “We’ve just got to help each other, be close to each other, work for each other. That’s what we’re trying to do.”While the Lightning have contingency plans to cope with Kucherov’s unavailability, it’s important to note that Stamkos is still getting back into game shape. While his teammates spent two months competing for the Cup inside the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles, Stamkos has been mostly sidelined since February. He needs to get his legs back under him and become re-accustomed to the Lightning’s system.“Let’s be honest, he hasn’t played since March,” Cooper said. “And so with Stammer, it’s timing, it’s reps, it’s new PP (power play) looks, just different things that are going on with him. But you know, he’s a savvy pro. So he knows how to navigate the waters, and he’s doing a good job in there.”Simply seeing their captain back on the ice has given the Lightning a boost.“It’s been a long time coming for him, and he’s worked extremely hard to get back into game shape,” Point said. “To see him out there and to play with him is awesome.” Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com . Follow @EddieInTheYard.