Steven Stamkos going on long-term injured reserve doesn't mean Nikita Kucherov is returning from it, according to Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper. Stamkos, the team's star center, was placed on LTIR on Thursday with a lower-body injury. He has 34 points in 38 games this season, with 17 goals and 17 assists. Stamkos would be eligible to return to the lineup on May 2 at the earliest.
"By no means are we saying that his season is over. This is just something that he has to go through here for a little bit and, for us, [it's] so he's in tiptop shape if we make the playoffs," Cooper said Friday.
Cooper said the team should know within the next 24 hours whether the latest injury is related to the core muscle issue that kept Stamkos out of all but one playoff game last season for the Stanley Cup champions.
Kucherov, who was NHL MVP for the Lightning in 2019, has yet to play this season after undergoing hip surgery in January. His placement on LTIR enabled Tampa Bay to get under the salary cap for the season, as his injury rehab pointed toward a playoff return for Kucherov. But with Stamkos and his $8.5 million cap hit going on injured reserve, there was immediate speculation that the Lightning would have the financial flexibility to bring Kucherov ($9.5 million cap hit) back to the lineup.
Cooper, however, shot down that theory.
"I just don't anticipate that happening. I don't know how we could make that happen. The whole plan for us is to bring Stammer back as soon as he's ready. If [Kucherov] were to be ready, that would be weeks ahead of schedule for him, for him to play in the regular season," he said.
Kucherov has been skating with the Lightning in a noncontact jersey, and has also skated with the team's taxi squad. Cooper said that he believes Kucherov will be ahead of schedule but that "he's nowhere near being ready to enter into contact drills or anything like that" in practice with the Lightning.
"Rest is still what's best for him. Is he making strides? Of course, there's no question that he's making strides. But you're getting to that point now where it's a little bit of a tease. You're feeling pretty good about yourself, but when you go see the people who make the decisions about your health and they say, 'You're not ready yet,'" Cooper said.
The Lightning are 29-12-2 with 13 games remaining in their season. They're in second place via points percentage (.698) in the Central Division behind Carolina (.714).