TAMPA, Fla. — There was a time shortly after the NHL’s most significant injury of the season when Jon Cooper and Marty St. Louis addressed a choice to be made. The coach and captain shared a basic message to their team, one that could define the Tampa Bay Lightning throughout the winter.
They could either be viewed as a one-man group or a complete squad, the men said. Steven Stamkos’ fractured right tibia sustained Monday in Boston, a gruesome setback that will likely keep the superstar out at least until late in the regular season, could either stunt a promising start or unite the Eastern Conference leaders.
The Bolts thought they had an identity, one with Stamkos front and center. Now, they’re forced to search deeper.
“We are a far better team with 91 in the lineup, I can’t stress that enough,” Cooper said Thursday, referring to Stamkos. “But we’re a pretty good hockey team with or without him.”
The Lightning will learn how good they are in the coming months. Before losing Stamkos in the second period at TD Garden, they were an emerging surprise in the Atlantic Division. Stamkos and St. Louis had offered the assumed production. But goalie Ben Bishop, in his second campaign here, had asserted himself as the missing piece that last season’s high-flying-but-reckless team lacked too often.
Stamkos’ injury changes everything, though. The argument can be made that the skilled center, only 23 years old, is the most indispensable Tampa Bay-area athlete regardless of sport. The Rays’ Evan Longoria is similar, but it’s hard to argue against Stamkos’ impact: A two-time All-Star, a two-time Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy winner, someone who had 14 goals and 23 points in 17 games this season.
There’s a sense of possibility when Stamkos controls the puck, like when LeBron James eyes the paint or when Adrian Peterson bursts toward a hole. That rare combination of hunger and instinct won’t be replaced by St. Louis or anyone else, but the Lightning must move forward with each individual part contributing to a larger piece of their whole.
“Not only (for) the veteran guys, but the younger guys, it’s a good chance to step up and create some offense and play well,” Lightning winger Brett Connolly told FOX Sports Florida. “We’re going to get more ice time with him out. It’s an opportunity. For us, we want to play for him.”
There’s still plenty to play for, of course. After a 5-1 victory over the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday night at Tampa Bay Times Forum, the Bolts’ 28 points lead the conference and are tied for fourth-most in the league.
This start has felt more sustainable. The Lightning appear to be stronger, more-balanced than the group that began 6-1 last season but finished with 40 points, the third fewest in the league.
In Stamkos’ absence, other personalities must evolve to make the trend last. Players like St. Louis, centers Valtteri Filppula and Alex Killorn, even young faces like Connolly, a former sixth overall pick, who’s only 21 years old.
“I think we have a good team, a solid team, with a lot of depth,” Lightning center Tyler Johnson told FOX Sports Florida. “I think everyone focuses a lot on Stamkos. They should. He’s a world-class player and unbelievable talent. At the same time, we have other guys who can play too. This is a good opportunity for everybody.”
Cooper faces opportunity as well. This is his first major test as Tampa Bay’s coach, now 35 games into his tenure. An injury to a player of Stamkos’ stature, especially this early, is a flashpoint for a dressing room. It affects veterans. It affects young players. It affects the coaching staff.
How Cooper manages the Lightning during this time will test his leadership and creativity. If he does well, he’ll be respected throughout the league. If he does well, he’ll gain credibility for a vision that’s developing. If he does well, this collection of talent will continue to become his own.
“I think everybody is waiting for the slipper to fall off the foot,” Cooper said.
Even with the strong start, there’s that danger. Starting Saturday, Tampa Bay begins a difficult stretch against Western Conference foes, with visits to the Phoenix Coyotes, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and Ducks through Nov. 22.
Cooper was pleased with the way the Bolts responded Tuesday in Montreal, their first test without Stamkos, and he hopes it’s a preview of future results. That night, during a 2-1 shootout victory, he noticed no panicked faces on the bench, no looks of “How will we survive without our star?”
Thursday, there was more of the same. Tampa Bay dominated Anaheim, which entered with a league-high 31 points.
In both cases, there was collective ownership in a mission. There was control even without Stamkos, not a loss of it.
Tampa Bay can dictate its future, as the results Tuesday and Thursday showed. Stamkos’ injury has become a major development, but the Lightning can create a new narrative if they avoid a major slump without their star.
The recent past suggests that’s possible. The Lightning have followed each of their losses with a victory, hinting that mental toughness is becoming part of this team’s DNA. The trait requires discipline, something that will be valued without Stamkos’ security blanket.
“I think that’s a pretty proven fact already, that he’s really valuable,” Filppula said. “I think the rest of the guys, we need to step it up and be able to get some wins without him.”
There are many ways it can happen. It’s difficult to see anyone matching Stamkos’ output. But if Bishop continues his stellar play — he has a league-best 13 victories — there are ways Tampa Bay can work around the injury. Anything is possible.
“Nobody’s filling 91’s shoes,” Cooper said. “Not one person can do it. Nobody in the league can do it. But 20 guys can fill his shoes.”
They have two choices: Be exposed as a one-man team or evolve as a complete group.
Be split or be seen joined together.
Be worse or become better.
It’s less than a week into life without a superstar, and the search for a deeper identity has begun.