If Tampa Bay Lightning fans were expecting to see iconic rocket of a one-timer from #91 after a sweet pass from #26 (Martin St. Louis) on the day Steven Stamkos returns, they will be sorely disappointed.
After an injury that has sidelined Stamkos for most of the season, it wouldn’t be smart to place him on the top line with top line minutes upon his return. Instead, Coach Jon Cooper should use the model Pittsburgh Penguins used when Sidney Crosby returned from a neck injury in 2012 that sidelined him for the better half of two seasons.
When Crosby returned to the lineup, it was already clicking very well for the Pens, very similar to how the Lightning are clicking now, and one can’t have a healthy Crosby or Stamkos be a healthy scratch so coaching staff will definitely make room. Dan Bylsma did the smart thing about it. He kept the top two lines the same and reintroduced Crosby on the third line easing him back into the lineup because although Crosby was healthy, he wasn’t as conditioned as he normally would be.
This did two things; it helped the player physically and mentally. Physically, Crosby was able to condition the body for game situations and mentally it prepared him for all of the hits and plays that come with hockey. Although some would debate Crosby was still not fully recovered as he struggled that year in the playoffs and wasn’t a factor at all. Something Cooper and the Lightning want to avoid.
The Bylsma model is what the Lightning should do with Steven Stamkos. Reintroduce him on a lower line and ease him back into his regular, and rightfully deserved, spot as a first line center after a few games. This will help not only his physical capability on the ice but it will also keep him less exposed as he prepares himself mentally for the game.
Seeing Stamkos skate and exercise is great and it shows his tremendous fortitude to come back from an injury like that but there are so many more variables than just being able to skate and do drills. It’s being able to skate in-game situations such as back checking, playing twenty-plus minutes a night and faceoff draws.
Skating is such a big part of Stamkos’ game as an elite hockey player and not having him fully adjusted in a game situation would harm the team more than help it. Yes, they would be getting Steven Stamkos back but if he can’t skate as well as before is he really Steven Stamkos?
Essentially, when he steps on the ice against an opponent for his first game back it means one thing—the real recovery will begin. It’s up to Cooper to ensure things go smoothly as Stamkos returns and give him the best opportunity to succeed on-ice.
The team has been able to be very successful without him in the lineup. With him in the lineup, they can really do something special this year, but he will need time to adjust.