While watching his greatest apprentice compete in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Gary Roberts noticed something was off.
Steven Stamkos scored at a point per game pace, logged more than 21 minutes of ice most nights and was a plus player in the series. Yet he and his Tampa Bay Lightning were eliminated in four straight. Stamkos was also just five months removed from having a titanium rod surgically inserted into his right leg, and to Roberts, he wasn’t the same player the fitness guru had molded the prior summer.
“I noticed he didn’t have the power that he normally has,” Roberts told Sportsnet in a recent interview. “He played well, I thought, but he was lacking some power in that leg,”
Stamkos told Roberts the same thing—the power wasn’t there yet.
“You gotta recognize, he missed a lot of time,” Roberts continued. “The toughest time for a player to come back and play is in the playoffs. Everybody’s been playing all along, and you come out of an injury; not only do you have to get up to pace, but it’s playoff pace. And playoff pace is considerably faster.”
Even the casual hockey viewer could pick up that Stamkos wasn’t the same dominant force the first few nights back in early March after being sidelined for nearly four months. But once the new captain scored in his fourth game post-op, he went on a tear, scoring 17 points in a 15-game stretch and leading the team to home-ice advantage in their first round series versus the Montreal Canadiens.
Stamkos had four more points in Tampa Bay’s four-game playoff exit, and would likely have had more were it not for some chronic bad luck. (“How often does Steven Stamkos come down and he's got the open net and his stick breaks?” coach Jon Cooper told reporters after the playoff exit.)
But it’s that other bad break that should concern Lightning fans.
“It definitely doesn’t feel the way it did before the injury, that’s for sure,” Stamkos told reporters in Tampa this week.
So instead of taking his usual three or four weeks off this spring, Stamkos—the guy who busted his ass to get back as soon as possible—expects to cut his vacation short.
The Gary Roberts High Performance Centre and Fitness Institute, located in greater Toronto, not far from Stamkos’s childhood home, is ready to put the finishing touches on the Stammer Rebuild, a project Mike Poirier and the Lightning training staff dedicated their winter to.
“The first thing we’ll do is put him through an evaluation with our athletes’ care, the people that treat our players, and make sure that the fracture is healed, the rod is in place, and there’s no issues with that,“ Roberts explained. “Make sure there’s no soreness.”
Monitoring the swelling around Stamkos’s right leg is of utmost importance, Roberts stressed, and the impact on the most-discussed limb in hockey must be increased gradually.
“We’re going to have to be very cautious for the first four or five weeks about what he does away from the gym and what we’re doing at the gym,” Roberts said. “He’s not going to be doing a lot of jumping initially. He’s going to be doing some real low-impact footwork, with specific strengthening for that individual leg to get it up to par with his other leg. We absolutely have to watch it every day to make sure we’re not getting too much soreness. You’re going to get a little soreness because you’re doing something different, but not so much that he’s getting swelling there. He’s going to need a lot more soft-tissue work this summer.”
Roberts said he has no doubt the 60-goal, pre-injury Stamkos will be back and running at 100 per cent power by the time training camp opens next fall.
“Hockey’s not a part-time job anymore. Part-time athletes get part-time results. He’s going to put his full-time attention to getting healthy and back to where he was. With the way he prepares, when you have a guy that truly wants to be the best player every day, I truly believe he’ll be fine,” Roberts said. “By mid-July he’ll be rockin’ and ready for another great season.”