Steven Stamkos on first full Lightning team practice since surgery: 'It was a start'
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos took another step towards his return Friday, encouraged with how he felt after his first full team practice since mid-November knee surgery.
But coach Jon Cooper made it clear that by no means is Stamkos' return imminent. And Stamkos admitted he wasn't sure if he'll be back by the end of the regular season, which has 12 games left.
This week marks the four month mark in the expected 4-6 month recovery, but Stamkos said the four-month expectation was out of the window right away. It's somewhere in the middle.
"When it's 100 percent, I'll be back," Stamkos said Friday, his first comments since surgery. "It's a question I can't answer. I've had a lot of ups and downs in this rehab process, where it feels like it's never going to get better. Then you have a week where it goes through the roof in regards to how you're feeling.
"I'll be playing when it feels ready. And I can't say it feels ready right now. But it was a start."
Just being back on the ice, playing on a line with Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point, was fun for Stamkos, who is starting to feel like a hockey player again. He had been skating and traveling with the team in a limited basis the past three weeks, but did everything Friday, including light contact. Cooper quipped Stamkos skated so they could field a full team for practice, with Ondrej Palat, Jake Dotchin, Cedric Paquette and Tyler Johnson all out.
Stamkos said the Lightning's remarkable run - going 12-3-3 to get back into the playoff conversation - has given him a lift in his rehab. But there were some dark days, an injury more challenging than his broken leg several years ago and blood clot last spring. Stamkos had a torn lateral meniscus repaired Nov. 17 in Colorado.
"This has been the toughest by far," Stamkos said. "I think mentally, you know what to expect. Physically, this one was the toughest with the type of injury it was. It was a grind. There were a lot of days, especially when it happened. Hopefully that's it, the string of bad luck is over."
Stamkos knew something was wrong when he got tangled near the boards in Detroit Nov. 15.
"You just feel something, and are like, 'Okay, it's going to release, or unclick or whatever,'" Stamkos said. "It wasn't until I got the MRI and you hear that you're going to be done for a while, and then you have surgery to fix it. It was frustrating. Obviously there are a lot of emotions went through your head, kind of a downward spriral for a couple days.
Stamkos was playing the best hockey of his life, with 20 points in his first 17 games (nine goals) in the first year of an eight-year $68 million extension. The Lightning, preseason Stanley Cup favorites, were 10-6-1 and in the middle of a four-game winning streak. Then Tampa Bay struggled, falling dangerously out of playoff position, last place in the Eastern Conference Feb. 2.
"There's a lot of what could have been,' Stamkos said. "But that's life. Things like that happen. You get tested in a lot of different ways. It's tough to watch the guys struggle. I see the season unfold the way it has. It's encouraging the way things have gone lately. It has helped me in the process as well."
Teammates could see the difference in Stamkos during this roller-coaster of emotions.
"He was on such a good pace, having such a good start to the season," wing Alex Killorn said. "Everyone felt for him for everything he's gone through. We were hoping he'd come in and have a huge year. You could tell at the beginning he was frustrated, he was down on himself. Now he's happy, back to his old self."
Now Stamkos has to feel like his old self on the ice before he comes back. How will he know?
"When there's no restrictions, where you feel like you did before surgery," Stamkos said. "Obviously, even when I came back from the broken leg, there was the curve that goes with coming back, the inflammation, the little bit of pain after. There shouldn't be any uncomfortable moments on the ice. Obviously some of that is mental too. I've been through this before, I have a good understanding of what my body needs to feel like in order to be back on the ice."