Can the Return of Steven Stamkos Boost the Lightning Into a Playoff Spot?

After a lengthy absence, Stamkos is reportedly close to making his way back into Tampa Bay's lineup. How would his possible return impact the team's playoff push?

Steven Stamkos has participated in every practice event for the Tampa Bay Lightning this week, and it is becoming increasingly more likely that he will make his long awaited return this weekend. The Lightning's first overall pick in 2008 has been absent from the lineup since November 17th after undergoing arthroscopic surgery to repair a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee.

His return could come at no better of a time as the Lightning are fighting for the Eastern Conference's second wild card spot. With seven games to play (and a game-in-hand), Tampa finds themselves three points behind the Boston Bruins -- with a game against Boston slated for April 4th.

Obviously, playing without Stamkos has been a big blow for the Bolts, but they've been able to keep their head above water. With strong performances from Nikita Kucherov and Jonathan Drouin, Tampa is still very much in the hunt, and Stamkos could be the piece that pushes them over the line and into the postseaso.

Stamkos at a Glance

Although it was a small sample size, we saw early in the season that Stamkos was poised to put up solid numbers. In this visual, provided by HockeyViz, we can see that in games that Stamkos' played, the Lightning were solid both offensively and defensively. They were looking to be at the top of the pack in the Eastern Conference.

Take into account the third row, which is entitled Smoothed 5v5 Shots/60 minutes, a term that defines all attempts made by and taken against Tampa Bay while Stamkos was on the ice. Since Stamkos spent most of his time of the 20 games he did play by starting shifts in the offensive zone, we can clearly attribute that as to why Tampa had a lion's share of the possession in these situations.

Aside from the fact that this sample size is small, we can see that Tampa dominates the flow of play with their main main in the fold.

The House Is on Fire

Another key point to look at is shot generation with and without Stamkos on the ice. The next two charts, also taken from HockeyViz, show how crucial Stamkos is to Tampa Bay. His style of play clearly dictates things for the Lightning.

The darker red circles indicate a higher number of attempts in the determined area. In previous pieces, we discussed how the "house" area of the ice as a higher-danger, better-reward area, and we can see in these illustrations that with Stamkos, the Lightning take a liking to this key area.

Stamkos is most known for his one-timer from the left circle, and we can see that Tampa Bay moves completely away from that outlet of offense when Stamkos isn't on the ice.

With and Without You

Shot generation is one thing, but how do the players who have played the entire year fare with and without Stamkos?

Since Stamkos had only played 20 games this season, we don't have a ton of data from his time on the ice this season, but we do have a much more defined sample size for Tampa Bay's play without him. (Again, data from HockeyViz.)

Ondrej Palat, Vladislav Namestnikov and Kucherov are Stamkos' three linemates. We can see that all three players have played above average for the majority of the season, but with Stamkos in the lineup, they play at much higher pace and account for a higher positive shot rating.

When Stamkos is at his best, not only does he play great, he elevates the play of those around him.

Playoff Implications

As we said earlier, Tampa Bay is three points out of a playoff spot coming into tonight's matchup with the Detroit Red Wings. Although Stamkos is not expected to play tonight "unless something drastically changes," the Bolts are sizeable favorites.

Coming into play today, our metrics have Tampa finishing with a 41-31-10 record for an estimated total of 91 points. With this point total, we give the Lightning a 28.40% chance to make the playoffs. Their backs are against the proverbial wall, but the return of Stamkos, one of the league's best players, is only going to help those odds and give the Lightning a fighting chance to make the playoffs.