BRANDON — The current number of Tampa Bay players sidelined by injury amounts to nearly half of the team’s NHL roster as the Lightning get set to host the Winnipeg Jets tonight.
Tampa Bay lost two players — defensemen Victor Hedman and Keith Aulie — during Thursday’s victory against Ottawa to bring the total of players out with injuries to nine, with more than half of those out for a significant amount of time.
Hedman, the team’s top defenseman, is expected to miss at least a week with an unspecified lower-body injury sustained when he was knocked into the side boards late in the first period Thursday. Aulie, who broke his left hand delivering an open-ice hit to Zack Smith in the defensive zone during the second period, had surgery Friday and is out indefinitely.
The injuries mean Tampa Bay now has nine players in the lineup who ended last season with Syracuse in the American Hockey League and four who started this season in the minors.
“They are going to start calling us the Syracuse Lightning here pretty soon,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “Literally, right now there might be more guys in the training room ... we are going to have to move the locker room to the training room, because it’s getting tough to see.
“It’s just unfortunate that we are not getting a break, because they keep coming and coming and coming. But eventually it has to stop, right?”
It hasn’t in recent weeks. Tampa Bay went through the first month of the season relatively injury-free, but has seen seven players go out of the lineup since Nov. 11, including five in the past two weeks.
Of the nine players, four have a broken bone of some variety — Steven Stamkos (broken tibia), Tom Pyatt (broken collarbone), Ryan Malone (non-displaced fracture in his ankle) and Aulie.
Brian Lee has been out all season after having knee surgery, which required a second arthroscopic procedure that will keep him off the ice longer than originally expected.
Pierre-Cedric Labrie will miss his fourth consecutive game after injuring his left arm in a fight with Derek Dorsett on Nov. 25 and has yet to be cleared to return to the lineup.
There does appear to be some good news, however, as defensemen Radko Gudas and Eric Brewer appear on track to be back against the Jets. Gudas has been out since taking a hard punch during a fight on Nov. 22 in Anaheim, while Brewer missed the past two games with an unspecified lower-body injury.
Through it all, Tampa Bay has managed to stay afloat, putting together a 5-5-1 record since losing Stamkos. The Lightning were third in the Atlantic Division heading into play Friday with a 17-10-1 record.
“You have to control what you can control; you can’t control that nine guys are out,” captain Marty St. Louis said. “You can control how hard you are going, and that’s what we have to focus on right now. ... We have to lead by example, stay upbeat. And it’s easier said than done sometimes, and sometimes that’s tough. But you have to stay enthusiastic, because your job becomes more important.”
That’s because it’s not just the number of players out of the lineup, it’s the quality and their roles.
Stamkos is the team’s No. 1 center and was leading the league in goals and points at the time of his injury. Hedman leads all Lightning defensemen in goals and ice time. Gudas was in a top-four pairing. Brewer provides veteran stability on the blue line. And Malone was in a top-six forward role.
That forces others into more prominent roles and increases the responsibility of the younger players.
“The guys that are in the lineup have to pick up for the guys who are out,” defenseman Matt Carle said.
NOTE: Lightning prospect Jonathan Drouin, the third overall pick in the 2013 draft, suffered concussion-like symptoms after being hit into the boards by Adam Erne, Tampa Bay’s second-round pick, during a game Friday.
Drouin was held out for precautionary purposes according to Halifax general manager Cam Russell and will be evaluated. Drouin plays for Halifax while Erne is with Quebec in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.