In the end, it came down to a matter of weeks.
That’s the length of time Steven Stamkos’s valiant attempt to play at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics fell short by, with his shattered right tibia simply not healing quickly enough for him to return to the ice in a game situation.
Now, the 23-year-old Tampa Bay Lightning star who has outscored every other NHL player the last five seasons will have to wait four years, and hope the league opts in for the 2018 Games to get his first Olympic experience.
The loss is a considerable one for Canada, the defending champion men’s hockey team, which will now go to Sochi down one of its most promising young stars and a hole on right wing alongside Sidney Crosby that needs a new occupant.
“Today is obviously very disappointing for me,” Stamkos said in a statement Wednesday. “I honestly believe that we did everything possible in order to have my leg ready in time for the Olympics, but I realize you can’t force healing. I know, in the best interest of my long term health, I cannot represent Canada in Sochi, as much as I would like to.”
There had been optimism Stamkos could play for the Lightning in their final game before the Olympic break on Saturday, ending a 40-game stretch out of the lineup.
He broke his leg in ugly fashion when he slammed into a goal post last Nov. 11 in Boston.
Instead, when Lightning doctor Ira Guttentag ran a CT scan on the leg Wednesday morning, the 3D image clearly showed the tibia – which has been reinforced by a titanium rod – had not fully healed.
In that sense, it made for an easy call for Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, who was doubly interested in the results, given he has been wearing two hats throughout the process as Stamkos’s NHL boss and the Canadian team’s executive director.
“It was a pretty clear-cut decision,” Yzerman said. “No grey areas at all.”
With the Canadian men’s first game at the Olympics only a week away, Yzerman will now need to move quickly in naming a replacement.
In the running are a handful of NHL all-stars, all of whom could theoretically slot in on the right wing or become a 13th forward in a new role: Claude Giroux, Martin St. Louis, James Neal, Eric Staal and Taylor Hall.
St. Louis will undoubtedly get the most attention. He is the NHL’s defending scoring champion.
St. Louis is the NHL’s defending scoring champion and, at 5-foot-8, 38, and starting his career undrafted, comes with a remarkable underdog story that seems fitting for the Games.
He is also the captain of the Lightning, making for a difficult choice for Yzerman, who has to weigh the wishes of his coaching staff and other executives against his own evaluations in determining who gets the final spot on the Sochi team.
St. Louis has only helped his case with eight goals and eight assists in the 14 games since the national team was announced on Jan. 7, but there have been rumblings for weeks the coaching staff prefer other candidates.
Whatever hard feelings there may be over the fact St. Louis (or any of the other choices) wasn’t named to the initial team would have to be quickly patched over, too, as NHL players are expected to fly to Russia as soon as league games end Saturday.
Canada faces Norway next Thursday in its first Olympic action since Crosby scored the “golden goal” in the Vancouver Games final four years ago.
How much Stamkos’s absence will ultimately hurt is debatable, as all of the potential replacements have impressive résumés of their own. But no one can quite match Stamkos’s unique abilities as a power-play and one-timer ace, talents he has used to rack up 199 goals in 311 games since the start of the 2009-10 season.
Only Washington Capitals (and Russia) star Alexander Ovechkin has totals in the same neighbourhood in that span – a testament to just how dominant Stamkos has become at such a young age.
The good news is the Olympic break should now give him more than enough time to heal, with a re-evaluation scheduled in two to three weeks.
Martin St. Louis, Tampa Bay Lightning
Decorated veteran has won two scoring titles, a Hart Memorial Trophy and a Stanley Cup as part of what could well be a Hall of Fame career. A sentimental choice given the long road he took to becoming a permanent NHLer and his lack of size.
Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers
No Canadian player has more points in the NHL over the last three seasons than Giroux, the hugely talented 26-year-old Flyers captain from Hearst, Ont. Doesn’t always get the headlines he deserves, but has been one of the league’s most productive players the last couple months after a slow start.
James Neal, Pittsburgh Penguins
Third in the NHL in goals per game the last three seasons behind only Steven Stamkos and Alexander Ovechkin, Neal comes with the added benefit of some built-in chemistry with Canada centre Sidney Crosby and is another pure-shooter type who could help on the power play. A wild card.
Eric Staal, Carolina Hurricanes
Another NHL captain in the running for a depth role, Staal was a difference maker in Vancouver in 2010, with six points in seven games, and can give Canada another big, physical presence down the middle or on the wing.
Taylor Hall, Edmonton Oilers
A long shot given the struggles of his NHL team this season, but there’s no denying the 22-year-old’s world-class skills. If not now, he could be one of the stars of a potential 2018 team.
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