Changing of the guard: Stamkos returns as Lightning deal St. Louis

TAMPA, Fla. — Hello again. Goodbye.

Excited to see you. Sayonara.

One star’s back. Another’s gone.

Now everyone — Marty St. Louis, Steve Yzerman, everyone within the Tampa Bay Lightning — must move on, and youth’s value is clearer than ever.

NHL trade deadline day is a tilt-a-whirl of emotions for some, and no fan base had greater whiplash than those who follow the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Bolts dropped two major headlines Wednesday only 34 minutes apart, both guaranteed to become legacies of this campaign and beyond.

11:51 a.m.: "Lightning Forward Steven Stamkos Cleared to Play."

12:25 p.m.: "LIGHTNING ACQUIRE FORWARD RYAN CALLAHAN, DRAFT PICKS FROM NEW YORK."

Steven Stamkos cleared to play

The capital letters say it all, don’t they?

Callahan is here, which means St. Louis is bound for the Big Apple after 12-plus seasons as the biggest-hearted Bolt of them all, his pride cut too deep from that first Team Canada decision in January.

"Today is a bittersweet day for me," St. Louis wrote in a letter to fans. "I am sad that this chapter of my career is over. I have had 14 wonderful years in Tampa and have cherished being a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

" … In the end this is a decision for my family. I respect the fact that many of you do not agree with my decision and are angry with it. All I really can say is that I am sorry and I am very appreciative of the support you have shown me through the years."

Apparently, even Sochi gold never dulled the rough edges of the relationship between St. Louis and Yzerman. Apparently, the situation was sharper than many thought, and that’s a shame after the veteran’s decorated career here included six All-Star Game appearances, three Lady Byng Memorial Trophies, two scoring titles, one Hart Memorial Trophy and a Stanley Cup.

Now, the Lightning must scoop the pieces from this day. They must build themselves up again while trying to fend off the Toronto Maple Leafs, Philadelphia Flyers, Columbus Blue Jackets and, yes, the Rangers, in a tight playoff chase.

The man charged with the heavy lifting?

Stamkos, you’re up.

"These younger players now move up the experience ladder," Yzerman said. "They all move up a little bit. They’re more comfortable. These players defer to the veteran players. Out of respect, it’s the way it is. As each veteran moves on, each younger player really blossoms into more responsibility on the ice, in the locker room, away from the rink, with the media. It’s just kind of a natural evolution."

Lightning trade Martin St. Louis

Stamkos’ evolution will be obvious soon. On a normal day, the announcement of his return from a broken right tibia would be a momentum boost, a jolt of optimism after Tampa Bay’s recent slide that included losing three of four games on its most recent road trip and seven of 10 since Jan. 28.

Certainly, the star center’s comeback — and his skill that produced 60 goals two seasons ago — will be received with open arms Thursday night at Tampa Bay Times Forum as the Lightning attempt to maintain playoff positioning in the Eastern Conference.

Since Nov. 11, when Stamkos winced in pain in Boston, this had been St. Louis’ team. And since Nov. 11, for much of the schedule before the Olympic break, the Lightning had adopted their captain’s personality: Tough, resourceful, resilient.

Now, this is Stamkos’ squad, plain and simple. He’s 24 years old, but he has spent five-plus seasons in the NHL. He must take the step that many assume he can make: Becoming an unquestioned franchise face, a budding leader who must turn his potential into progress in that area.

How important is it that Stamkos develops his leadership? Tampa Bay’s hopes of reaching the postseason for the first time since the 2010-11 campaign depend on it.

Vinny Lecavalier is gone. Now St. Louis.

It’s Stammertime in more ways than one.

"It’s a tough loss not only for our team but (for) what he has done for our organization," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said of St. Louis. "But in saying that, I think you could honestly say that the team we fielded in St. Louis last night is not as good as the team we’re going to field tomorrow against Buffalo."

Moments in Lightning History

Stamkos’ supporting cast is intriguing. Ben Bishop is one of the league’s best goaltenders with a 2.07 goals-against average, center Valtteri Filppula has 41 points and 20 goals in 57 games, defenseman Victor Hedman has 40 points and 29 assists in 55 games, Tyler Johnson has risen as one of the league’s best rookies with 38 points and 20 assists in 62 games. Stamkos will have help.

Then there are more interesting complementary parts: defenseman Radko Gudas and wingers Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov among them, plus Callahan once he becomes comfortable. This won’t be a one-man show, and that should be a relief for Cooper.

Would the Lightning be better if St. Louis had shelved his feelings and stayed through the late-season sprint? Absolutely.

This is a bruise that will linger for a while. Only St. Louis knows why his Tampa Bay career had to end this way, and an uneasy, incomplete feeling lingered in the bowels of Tampa Bay Times Forum after Yzerman and Cooper spoke Wednesday.

Still, this is an opportunity for Stamkos. His rise to the position was going to happen at some point. He had said he wished he could play with St. Louis forever, and in their years together, the sage veteran gifted Stamkos a strong blueprint for the role the young star now owns.

Be relentless. Be consistent. Be the cornerstone.

Be the elite player you know you can be.

No excuses. No questions asked.

"With Marty moving on now, I expect Steven — even the Teddy Purcells, the Matt Carles, Eric Brewers, all these players, they all move up a little bit more on the seniority ladder," Yzerman said.

Tampa Bay’s survival demands it. Stamkos’ ability to accept that responsibility will be tested sooner than thought.

This is a landmark day for the Lightning, a changing-of-the-guard that no one could have predicted late last year. This will be remembered, and to some, these hours cloud St. Louis’ legacy.

What began as a positive morning with news of Stamkos’ return turned bittersweet with St. Louis jetting north for a new life as New York’s No. 26.

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. On this uncommon day, the two extremes came 34 minutes apart.

Stamkos, it’s your time.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.