Through all the ups and down and high school drama associated with troubled young-gun Jonathan Drouin, the defending Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning have managed to stay at or near the top of the Atlantic Division for almost the entire 2015-2016 season. With the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs just about a week and a half out, the Bolts are gearing up for what they hope will be another long playoff run. However, it appears right now that Tampa will be forced to do so without superstar center and team captain, Steven Stamkos, who was diagnosed with a blood clot in his right shoulder on Sunday. The clot will reportedly require surgery and Stamkos will be out anywhere between one and three months according to GM Steve Yzerman and NHL.com.
Steven Stamkos’ statement regarding his blood clot. pic.twitter.com/5PcVc46C4j
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) April 3, 2016
Words cannot even express how big of a loss this is for the Lightning as Stamkos is the heart and soul of their offense. Last season, Tampa Bay was bailed out of a slow start by Stamkos in the 2015 postseason due to the rise of young sniper Tyler Johnson. But in 2016, Johnson’s production has significantly declined due to a series of injuries and line adjustments. Without Steven Stamkos, Tampa is simply a completely different hockey team and one that likely will not be able to make a long playoff run unless players such as Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, Victor Hedman, and Ryan Callahan have a career postseason.
If Tampa (95 points) is able to win the Atlantic Division, they will play either Detroit (91 points), Boston (90 points), Philadelphia (91 points) or the New York Islanders (93 points) in the opening round. If Tampa is unable to capture the division, they will still likely see home ice in a series against either Detroit or Boston as the No. 2 seed in the Atlantic (Tampa is 4-3-1 against Boston/Detroit in 2015-2016). It may sound crazy, but not winning the division may be the best option for the Lightning right now. The goal every season obviously is to win your division, but if you are Tampa, who would you rather play in the first round? Boston/Detroit (two teams who have struggled down the home stretch of the regular season and Tampa has played fairly well against), or currently the hottest team in the NHL in the Philadelphia Flyers/the always dangerous New York Islanders, who will both likely be getting in as a Wildcard team? Without Steven Stamkos, it is hard to imagine Tampa being able to survive the likes of Claude Giroux or Jonathan Tavares in a seven-game series. Boston and Detroit, however, do not have that one young, fast, superstar that would be a matchup nightmare for the Lightning without Stamkos being present to shadow him (maybe with the exception of Datsyuk). Clearly, however, the best bet for the Bolts to get out of the first round is a date with either Detroit or Boston due to the favorable matchup. By coming in second in the division, it would, at least, guarantee home ice against one of those two teams. If Tampa were able to advance out of round one, it will be interesting to see whether or not the strategy of intentionally not winning the division will come back to bite them with a second-round date with either Washington or Pittsburgh due to their No. 2 seed, rather than a No. 1.
While the loss of Stamkos is obviously a significant blow to the Lightning, the remaining Eastern Conference playoff field may have just dodged a major bullet. Tyler Johnson has not been the same player in 2015-2016 as he was in 2014-2015, and without a superstar scorer, who knows how much offense the Lightning will be able to generate in the postseason no matter who they draw in round one. Even without Steven Stamkos, Tampa will still likely be favored in their first-round playoff series. Boston and Detroit are still the better matchups for Tampa in the opening round, but the road to the second round for either Boston, Detroit, Philly, or the New York Islanders just got a whole lot easier with Steven Stamkos being out depending on which of the four draws Tampa in the conference quarterfinals.
THIS IS YOUR CHANCE JONATHAN DROUIN. DON’T SCREW THIS UP!