It has long been assumed Steven Stamkos would have to play a game or two for the Lightning in order to prove he is ready to play for Canada in next month's Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
But the star center, out since Nov. 11 with a broken right tibia, said he doesn't necessarily have to play for Tampa Bay before playing for Canada, which opens its Olympic tournament Feb. 13 against Norway.
If he does not play for the Lightning, however, his Olympic participation would depend on a "discussion" with Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, who also is executive director of Team Canada.
"The objective is to play a game," Stamkos said Tuesday in Toronto. "That's something I would really love to do. But if that's not the case, there's going to be another discussion about whether I'm stil going to be on that (Olympic) team. We haven't had that. It's more like we'll cross that bridge when we need to."
If such a discussion does happen, Stamkos said it will be "honest."
"If we have to sit down a couple of days before we're supposed to leave for the Olympics, we can be honest with each other," Stamkos said. "If I say I'm at the level I need to be to compete in the Olympics, I think he's going to have to trust in me that I can go over there and play at that level. But I have to be honest with him. If I say I'm not ready then, obviously, I'm not going to go."
Yzerman agreed with that characterization.
"If he gets a chance to play in a game, if he's cleared to play, great," Yzerman said. "If not, then depending on what the doctor says and how he feels, is he good to go for the first game of the tournament? He's the only one who really knows that once the doctors give him the green light to play."
Stamkos, 23, took another step in his rehab on Tuesday, by participating in the team's morning skate. It was the first time he practiced in a regular jersey rather than a red no-contact jersey or yellow caution jersey.
The concern about him skipping Monday's practice because of soreness, seemed forgotten. The speculation is Stamkos would ideally like to play Feb. 6 at home against the Maple Leafs, though the Feb. 4 game at Minnesota hasn't been ruled out either. Tampa Bay's final game before the Olympic break is Feb. 8 at home against the Red Wings.
"It's got to feel good in practice with some contact, there's no denying that," Stamkos said. "You can't mimic a game-like situation without playing in a game, but at least get a couple of good hard practices in with some kind of contact, and we're not there yet. If that's going to happen, it has to happen in the next week or so."
His overall fitness is not a concern, Stamkos said: "I've been working extremely hard off the ice and doing some bag skates here and there. That's not the focus, it's how the leg is feeling and how it respeonds to certain movements and activities."
"If he comes back before the Olympic break, that's just icing on the cake for us," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "But this is all up to Steven. As much as I want him to play in the Olympics, (Yzerman) wants him to play in the Olympics, the country wants him to play in the Olympics, you really have to look at Steven the person. This is his livelihood. This is who he is, so we have to look beyond that. I know whatever happens it's going to be for the right reasons and not to push things to jeopardize his future."
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Other stuff from the morning skate: Ben Bishop gets the start in net tonight against the Maple Leafs. … Sounds as if D Mark Barberio will hold off cutting his hair until next month to make it part of the annual Cut for a Cure fundraiser for pediatric cancer research. … Former Lightning defenseman Paul Ranger, who abruptly left the team in October 2009 for personal reasons, is a likely scratch tonight for Toronto. Ranger, 29, has two goals, nine points and is minus-8 with an average 18:55 of ice time in 36 games. He has been a healthy scratch in 10 straight games. Ranger said he is "happy where I am at" and politely declined to discuss why he left Tampa Bay. "I'm here now, that's all I'm focusing on," he said. "My private life is my private life." … ECHL Florida released defenseman Brian Rafalski, who has not played since Jan. 18 because of a sore back. … Defenseman J.P. Cote will be scratched for a third straight game tonight. Said he considers the 16 games he has played since his call-up from AHL Syracuse a "bonus" in his career, considering he had not played in the NHL since Feb. 4, 2006.