TORONTO – Steve Yzerman knows he could scour the Tampa Bay Lightning organization and not find a replacement for Steven Stamkos.
He could search the NHL, too.
“There’s nobody apart from a handful of players in the league who we’re not going to be able to get anyway that we can fill the role that Steven is playing for us,” Tampa Bay’s general manager said.
For as long as Stamkos is on the shelf, the Lightning will have to make do. But this is a double loss for Yzerman, who might have to adjust his planning for the Olympics as Team Canada’s general manager. Stamkos is out indefinitely after undergoing surgery Tuesday to repair a broken right tibia, but it remains uncertain if he’ll be an option for Sochi, Russia.
“In regards to the Olympics, we’ll wait and see,” Yzerman said after the league’s general managers meeting in Toronto. “I don’t have a time frame yet on how long he’s going to be out. I haven’t been given one. I do know when they tell me it’s going to be a pretty broad range. I expect him, knowing him and being young, that he’ll be on the shorter end of the rehab process than the longer.”
Team Canada could keep Stamkos on the roster and use an injury replacement ahead of the Games in Sochi if he’s not ready. But if it’s determined that Stamkos is not close, Canada has options to replace him.
“You’re never replacing Steve Stamkos,” Hockey Canada president and CEO Bob Nicholson said Monday night. “We have a lot of great players. Steve Yzerman has a very difficult job putting this team together, but you don’t replace Steve Stamkos and we’ll just have to find another way to make sure the lineup’s strong.”
Four years after winning gold in Vancouver, Canada’s lineup is still expected to be strong. Stamkos wasn’t on that team, but his absence in February would represent a major weakness.
Stamkos was disappointed to be left off that team at the age of 20, but Yzerman sees improvement in Stamkos that goes beyond trying to erase that memory.
“He’s elevated his game at this early stage of the season to a level beyond last year in all aspects of his game,” Yzerman said. “I think even beyond the Olympics he’s motivated to be not just the best scorer, the best player in the world.”
The best players Canada has will be going to Sochi, starting with Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, John Tavares and Eric Staal. When Yzerman and Team Canada’s management staff, which includes Kevin Lowe of the Edmonton Oilers, Peter Chiarelli of the Boston Bruins, Ken Holland of the Detroit Red Wings and Doug Armstrong of the St. Louis Blues, hash out the roster, those players won’t be the focus.
“There’s a group of guys that, assuming they’re healthy, we could all debate, but there’s generally a group of them that are on the team we don’t need to spend a lot of time on,” Yzerman said. “We give some of the veteran guys, regardless of the starts they have, good or bad, we give them the benefit of the doubt at least to stay in the discussion for the team.”
Stamkos was considered part of that cast. The next step is digging to the next level of Olympic candidates.
Some young players who weren’t around in 2010 have put together strong enough starts that they’re in good shape now. Matt Duchene of the Colorado Avalanche (11 goals and eight assists in 17 games) and Logan Couture of the San Jose Sharks (seven and 10 in 17) have stood out.
“You can’t ignore some of the younger players who have played extremely well,” Yzerman said. “You cannot ignore some of the younger players that, they’ve always been on the radar, we’ve always been watching them. Well, there’s starting to be a couple of them, probably, we can’t leave off the team.”
Along with Duchene and Couture, it looked like Corey Perry of the Anaheim Ducks could ride his hot start to Sochi even before Stamkos was injured. Stamkos was a strong option to play right wing alongside Crosby on Canada’s top line, and now that duty could fall to Perry or Marty St. Louis of the Lightning, last year’s Art Ross Trophy-winner.
Yzerman is very familiar with St. Louis, who didn’t make it in 2010 but has the kind of goal-scoring prowess that could be worthy of a promotion in Stamkos’s absence.
Yet the players’ stocks who could rise the most in the aftermath of the Stamkos injury are two who weren’t in Calgary for Olympic orientation camp in August: Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers and Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars. Giroux elected not to go while rehabbing a hand injury, while Benn was not invited.
Team Canada’s management meetings in Toronto marked a shift in philosophy that brings a few more players into the debate.
“We wanted to use the start of the season here up until this meeting to just sit and watch and see what we see and we’ll go over the players that we brought to camp, and we’ll also have a discussion: OK, who’d we miss? Who’s playing well? Who do we really got to focus on?” Yzerman said. “It’s that other group of players that they’ll be undoubtedly in that conversation a couple of guys that necessarily weren’t at the camp.”
Giroux’s horrid start put him in a bad spot, but the need for a centre who can play right wing gives him a chance for redemption. He scored his first goal Saturday against the Edmonton Oilers, which could be just the spark he needs.
Benn is a centre-turned-left-winger, but the flexibility of players like Patrick Sharp of the Chicago Blackhawks could help him get on the roster and let the lines shake out later.