EDMONTON -- We can only imagine what this has been like for Steven Stamkos.
The Tampa Bay Lightning captain hasn’t spoken to reporters since before the playoffs started. But he’s spent 55 days living behind the fences inside the NHL bubble, away from his wife and son, and unable to play for even a shift of his team’s run to the Stanley Cup Final.
That would be difficult for any hockey player, but in the context of Stamkos’s career it seems downright cruel.
This is a guy who missed out on the opportunity to play for Team Canada at the Sochi Olympics in 2014 because of a broken leg and was limited to just one game in Tampa’s run to the 2016 Eastern Conference Final because of a scary blood clot situation.
And while his list of career ailments also includes a torn meniscus, it’s not as if Stamkos is hurt all the time. It just seems to happen at the wrong times. He played all 82 games last season and got in 57 this year before undergoing core muscle surgery on March 2.
That procedure came with a six- to eight-week recovery timeline, which passed during the COVID-19 pause. Stamkos had resumed skating by the time the summer training camp came around in July and was still a regular participant in practice after the Lightning travelled to Toronto and joined the bubble.
Somewhere along the way he suffered a setback or a new injury. All we know for sure is that he’s been deemed unfit to play for all 19 Tampa playoff games so far and is unlikely to return for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against Dallas on Saturday night.
“He’s still rehabbing, we haven’t ruled him out,” Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois said Friday. “I don’t expect him in the lineup tomorrow.”
Under these circumstances, after everything Stamkos has been through, it would be quite something if he managed to get back playing with a chance to win the Stanley Cup.
You could see how much it meant to the 30-year-old just to be included in Thursday’s less significant presentation at Rogers Place. Victor Hedman, a teammate for 11 seasons and more than 700 games, made sure Stamkos joined the group that accepted the Prince of Wales Trophy from deputy commissioner Bill Daly after the Lightning won the Eastern Conference Final.
Stamkos and Hedman, the two foundational building blocks of this organization, have both reached the stage of their career where winning is all that matters.
Their professional existence is geared entirely around these precious moments. They’ve won individual awards and earned enough money to ensure future generations of their families are secure. They have built careers that will likely land both of them in the Hockey Hall of Fame one day.
The only thing that’s missing is now four wins away.
“Every year that passes that you don’t win, it’s another opportunity that’s gone by,” Stamkos told Joe Smith of The Athletic in September 2019. “I’ve dealt with a lot of things in my career in terms of injuries and have overcome that. But you never know what’s going to happen. You want to take advantage of playing on a team of this calibre.
“The search for that elusive trophy continues and you just want to do anything you can to win.”
You can be sure he’s doing absolutely everything in his power to get back in the lineup now. Stamkos has participated in a few recent Lightning skates here, and could be seen skating with determination and leaning into his patented one-timer during brief clips made available on the NHL’s media website.
It’s hard to imagine that he would be doing all that work for naught.
Even though the team has reached this stage without him, it’s not as though it can’t use him. The Lightning have relied heavily on Hedman and the top line of Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat for goals during these playoffs and saw its power play fall quiet for the last five games of the Islanders series.
Then there’s the fact that Point and Kucherov are each playing at something less than 100 per cent and are now entering Cup Final that will be contested in a more compressed manner than usual. The Lightning and Stars are due to play five games in the next eight days. The grind is becoming real.
Should Stamkos find his way back into the lineup at some point during that stretch, it would be an emotional shot in the arm for the group. They’ve been building towards this opportunity for a long time now and won’t want to let it slip through their fingers.
“You realize now all you want is to chase the Stanley Cup,” Stamkos told Smith last September. “The goals, the assists, the points: they’re nice. But our goal now, and [what it] should have been, is to bring home the team trophy.
“A lot of guys won individual awards last year, which is great on the resume at the end of your career. But everyone is judging you on championships. You’ve got to find a way to win them.”
Seeing him return to the lineup would help those efforts considerably.