Steven Stamkos and the lost years of his prime

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During the 2011-12 season Steven Stamkos became just the fourth player in the past 20 years to score 60 goals in a single season. It put him a list that includes only him, Alex Ovechkin, Mario Lemieux, and Jaromir Jagr. With the way goal scoring in the NHL is right now, it is unlikely that list will grow anytime soon.

At the time, he was still only 21 years old and had already established himself as one of the two best goal scorers in the league. Given that it was during the two-year window where Ovechkin was being held back by an overly conservative Capitals system that was begging him to be something he was not, Stamkos was probably the best goal scorer in hockey at that time.

While he has continued to be one of the two or three best in the league, the five years that have followed that monster season have been a roller coaster of ups and downs. He recently had another down moment when it was announced by the Lightning that knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus will keep him out of the lineup for at least the next four months.

That means one of the NHL’s best goal scorers is going to lose a significant portion of yet another season in what should be his best and most productive years in the league.

Assuming that four month timeline is accurate, that means the earlier we will probably see him back on the ice for Tampa Bay is in the middle of March. That would mean he is likely to miss around 54 games of the 2016-17 season.

When you add it to the games he’s missed over the previous four years it comes out to nearly two full seasons between the ages of 22 and 26. Or in other words, we should be the most productive years of his career.

A brief recap.

  • He lost half of his age 22 season (through no fault of his own) to the 2012-13 NHL lockout. He still scored 29 goals in 48 games (second most in the league). That would have put him on a pace to flirt with 50 goals over a full season.
  • He came back the next season with 14 goals in his first 17 games(!) before a broken leg sidelined him for months during the middle part of the season. He ended up with 25 goals in 37 games, a pace that would have been good enough for 55 goals over 82 games.
  • He returned for nearly two fully healthy seasons before a blood clot issue at the end of the 2015-16 season sidelined him for the final games of the regular season right up through Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.

Back to 100 percent health at the start of this season, he was off to an incredible start for the Lightning and was one of the NHL’s leading scorers before the knee injury in Detroit that is going to sideline him for the next several months.

Together, between a lockout, two major leg injuries, and a blood clot issue he will have only played in around 64 percent of the games he was eligible for over the past five seasons, during a time when he should have been scoring at his peak levels.

Given his goal scoring numbers during that stretch (.544 goals per game) when he was averaging between 45-50 goals per 82 games, it would not be unreasonable to estimate that he will probably lose out on about 70-75 goals during that time frame. That is … a lot. That means he probably should already be pushing the 400-goal mark by the end of this season. All before his 28th birthday (he doesn’t even turn 27 until the end of February). Keep in mind that only 12 players in league history have recorded 400 goals before their age 28 season.

When we think about great players losing significant portions of their best years to injury Eric Lindros is usually one of the first ones you go to. One of the most physically dominant players to ever play in the league, Lindros lost years of his career to injury (concussions, specifically) and is one of the biggest “what if?” stories in NHL history. But even he only missed 96 games between his age 22 and 26 seasons, before missing his entire age 27 season. More recently, Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby lost 148 games between the same ages.

The point here is that injuries are unavoidable in the NHL. It is at times a brutal, collision sport that will wear even the best players down over time.

The unfortunate reality of that is that it will sometimes rob you of seeing the best players at the top of their game. Stamkos is just the latest example.

He is still going to be a great player and what we have seen from him has been everything the Lightning could have hoped for. But during the years where he was supposed to be at his best we never really got to see all of it.