TAMPA — The realization that Steven Stamkos was not going to be in the Tampa Bay Lightning lineup, on the bench or in the locker room for an extended period of time was bound to set in at some point.
You don’t lose a player of his caliber and not feel his absence.
It’s pretty clear that reality hit home during Tampa Bay’s four-game road trip to the West Coast.
Of course the Lightning miss the offense Stamkos provides, which feels like a goal a game, although coach Jon Cooper equated the void as three-quarters of a goal per game that has to be made up either offensively or defensively. That was painfully absent for Tampa Bay on the road.
And quite honestly, that is exactly where the Lightning will feel the loss the most — on the road.
With Stamkos in the lineup, he draws the opposing team’s top defensive pairings and faces the top lines every night. Teams know they have to keep a close eye when No. 91 is on the ice. He draws that much attention from the opposing teams on a nightly basis — and deservedly so.
Now when teams game plan against the Lightning, it changes their focus.
Because the coaching staff has to shuffle the Lightning deck, it slots guys into different spots and into roles they were not expected to have to fulfill.
That makes a big difference when an opposing team looks to line match and they can send their second line out against a line centered by an Alex Killorn or a Brett Connolly — and that’s not a knock on either of those players. Or seeing Valtteri Filppula, brought in to be the second-line center, on the top line. Again, that’s not a slight on Filppula, but rather an understanding of the difference opposing teams look at the Lightning lineup without Stamkos in it.
What it also does is make real estate on the ice a bit more difficult to come by, particularly for right wing Marty St. Louis, who has played alongside Stamkos for the better part of the past four years. Since teams don’t have to keep an eye on Stamkos, their focus shifts to the next most dangerous player on the ice for Tampa Bay, and that’s St. Louis.
A lack of space is something St. Louis is well aware of, even with Stamkos on the ice.
“We are in an era right now where it’s very difficult to create space by yourself,” St. Louis said. “Even when you are one-on-one, there is not much space — you are in a phone booth, then you have to try to work your way out of it. It’s hard to do and you rely on the players that you are out there with. I believe you have to work hard for your teammates to create space for them and it’s vice versa — they have to work hard for you.”
Without Stamkos, that’s even more difficult to find. And with a team that currently has five forwards who played more games in the American Hockey League last year than in the National Hockey League, opposing teams will want to make the established stars beat them by throwing out their best matchups.
In the long term while Stamkos remains out, that will be a situation to monitor to see how the Lightning look with a reshuffled lineup, especially when on the road.