As Steven Stamkos writhed in pain on the ice Monday in TD Garden, it was hard not to feel for the Tampa Bay Lightning star. Injuries happen all the time in the NHL, many even gruesome, but few of the stomach-turning nature of watching Stamkos' leg wrap around the right post and to see one of the game's best players in such clear and unsettling distress.
The initial thought when something like that happens is the obvious concern for the player. However, as Stamkos disappeared from the ice on a stretcher, the mind wanders over to what on earth the Lightning are going to do without their best player and one of the league's most productive stars.
That only intensified when the team announced that Stamkos has a broken tibia and will be out indefinitely. That he is having surgery Tuesday morning in Boston will do that timeline no favors. He could be lost for the season, which seems a conservative assumption at this point.
Tied for the league lead with 23 points at the time of his injury, Stamkos is the type of player that is irreplaceable from any roster, but particularly so from Tampa Bay's.
The Lightning have been one of the surprises of the young season. Leading the Atlantic division with a 12-5-0 record and enjoying a surprising amount of success against Western Conference clubs while the rest of the East flounders. Had you asked the Lightning brass what they would think about that kind of success at the beginning of the season, they might have even called it a best-case scenario.
With one slip on the ice, things quickly turned into a potential worst-case scenario awfully quickly for the Lightning and their season.
Now Tampa Bay has to find a way to stay ahead of a pretty tough Atlantic Division without the purest goal scorer in the game. As head coach Jon Cooper called it after Monday's game in Boston, life without Stamkos is a “test.” It's the biggest yet for Tampa's bench boss in his first full season at the helm.
Knowing that the team has no hope of replacing Stamkos adequately with a single player, they'll need to find the best mix to replace him by committee. Luckily, that committee will include one of the game's most productive players of the last decade in Martin St. Louis.
With general manager Steve Yzerman's more measured, patient approach over the last few years as general manager, it would seem out of character for him to seek out a trade for some short-term scoring help. The Lightning have drafted well and are in the process of building a high-end prospect pool that makes the long-term outlook for the franchise bright. Sacrificing some of that might be wasteful.
Outside of St. Louis, the team will have to look to a young group of players that have gained a fair amount of experience over the last year to at least be ready enough to step into a larger role.
Among them, Tyler Johnson, the AHL's leading goal scorer last year with 37, and Brett Connolly, the sixth overall pick by Tampa in the 2010 NHL Draft, who had 31 for the Syracuse Crunch last season. Both are still finding their NHL legs, but have potential to produce.
There's also Alex Killorn, who is off to a good start with 12 points in 17 games after playing his first 38 NHL contests last season. Offseason signee Valtteri Filppula will also have to figure into the scoring equation in a big way as he is among the team leaders with six goals to date.
If the Lightning need to look outside the current roster for options, they don't even have to go outside of their own organization.
Nikita Kucherov, Tampa's second-round pick in 2011, is currently lighting lamps with regularity for the Syracuse Crunch. With 12 goals in 13 games so far, Kucherov is showing off the natural goal-scoring touch that made him one of the most dangerous players in the QMJHL last season and an absolute terror in international tournaments for Russia.
Kucherov has essentially been scoring at will for the Crunch. Though it would be unexpected for him to be able to bring that same level of production to the Lightning, he has some dynamic qualities in his game that could make him an intriguing short-term addition. Even though Kucherov is a wing and wouldn't fill Stamkos' spot per se, if he could match even half of Stamkos' scoring temporarily (which is still quite a bit to ask a rookie), it's a huge help.
The big question Yzerman will have to ask is whether or not Kucherov is ready to jump into the NHL. You don't want to sacrifice long-term development by rushing a player into a situation where he is needed to produce despite having a grand total of zero NHL games under his belt.
“I know I talk about being patient, but if a guy is ready to play in the NHL and I have a roster spot for them, they'll play," Yzerman told the Tampa Bay Times last weekend.
Well, about that…
Another name to keep in mind is Vladislav Namestnikov, Tampa's first-round selection from 2011, who has been biding his time in the minors. He has some dynamic capabilities as well and unlike Kucherov, he's a center.
Though replacing Stamkos is going to be necessary for the Lightning to continue on its path towards the playoffs, there's more reason for concern going forward for Tampa Bay.
On top of now having to replace Stamkos, the Lightning are also going to have to figure out how to keep up with the division when Ben Bishop's insane start to the season between the pipes starts regressing to the mean.
Just 13 games into the campaign, Bishop has already played more minutes than he has in any NHL season previously. Meanwhile, he has posted a .927 save percentage en route to an 11-2-0 record between the pipes.
Bishop could defy logic for a while longer, but odds are, he's going to come back to earth at some point here. There's really no telling where he goes from this point since Bishop has never been a No. 1 and experienced the kind of workload he'll have in Tampa this season.
This is an incredibly difficult storm to weather for Jon Cooper and company. There's not a lot the team can do to control what happens with Bishop. The best they can hope for at this point is finding a way to piece together a way to replace Stamkos' production.
It is unlikely the Lightning are going to manage to keep a first-place pace in the Atlantic. Especially since the team has weirdly struggled against Eastern Conference opponents, most notably the Boston Bruins, who trail Tampa by just one point in the standings.
The top teams in the Atlantic are bunched together pretty tightly, with four teams within two points of each other. Things are probably going to get incredibly difficult for Tampa down the stretch without Stamkos' scoring prowess and the natural decline that was probably going to come anyway.
It's going to take a herculean effort to stay in the playoff hunt, but with the Metropolitan Division looking more like the town dump, there's hope in a wild card scenario at the very least, assuming the Tampa Bay Lightning can adjust to life without Steven Stamkos.