When their leading scorer and captain demanded out, the Tampa Bay Lightning could have slipped and fallen out of the NHL playoff race during the ensuing leadership crisis.
However, the Lightning turned Martin St. Louis's trade demand into a win at all levels that saw them go into Toronto on Wednesday to play the Maple Leafs on a three-game winning streak. Of course, seamless leadership changes occur when you already have a superstar and captain-in-waiting on the roster and when your general manager lands just the kind of player you need in two-way forward Ryan Callahan in the trade for St. Louis.
But the smooth change was not guaranteed because the superstar and new captain, Steve Stamkos, was coming off a 45-game absence due to a broken leg. Since returning to the lineup on Mar. 6, a day after the St. Louis trade, Stamkos has slowly worked his game back into shape and after going pointless in his first three games has four in his last three, which just happen to be wins. This kept the Lightning third in the Atlantic Division, one point ahead of the Maple Leafs before their big divisional match.
"It's been pretty crazy," Stamkos said of all the events around his return, starting with the loss of his linemate St. Louis, the last of the Big Three stars from the Lightning's 2004 Stanley Cup team. "Coming back and getting all excited and obviously the trade deadline happening and being named captain and the expectations I put on myself to come back and produce right away and help this team win.
"We struggled a little bit out of the gate, but I think we've found our groove now. It's been fun. This group of guys that we have is something that I think can be special this year. We're believing in each other and everyone is stepping up. We've dealt with adversity all year whether it's been injuries or trades."
Stamkos admits it was not easy to see his friend St. Louis, who became the face of the Lightning franchise during his nearly 13 seasons in Tampa, leave for the New York Rangers. But St. Louis could not put aside his bitterness at Lightning GM Steve Yzerman, who directed the 2010 and 2014 Canadian men's Olympic hockey teams, over being left off the 2010 team and initially getting snubbed for the 2014 team. Not even St. Louis's late addition to this year's team as an injury replacement for Stamkos and the resulting gold medal could make him change his mind.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper says Stamkos, 24, still needs more game action to get his legs and his timing back up to his usual gold standard. But there is nothing wrong with the way he stepped into the breach to replace St. Louis as captain.
"I just can't say enough about what he's done to keep us all together," Cooper said. "It's paid off in the last five games; I think we've taken eight of 10 points.
Stamkos is adjusting to new linemates (Alex Killorn and Tyler Johnson) as well as the loss of St. Louis " so it's different burdens on his shoulders," Cooper said. "But I'll be honest. He's electrifying when he's on the ice. He'll be the first one to tell you there's still holes in his game right now but you can see him getting better and better. It's coming at no better time than right now when we need him."
According to Stamkos, since there was already a group of leaders on the team stepping into the captain's role was easier than it could have been.
"Obviously it's not the way I envisioned being captain of the team," he said. "Under the circumstances, I definitely want to be the guy that the guys can lean on and trust. Like I said, we have a good mix of veteran guys and young guys. You just try to learn from those guys that I played with in the past that have instilled those morals and values of what they want a team to be. My job's been pretty easy so far."
One of those leaders is Callahan, who Cooper says has also made a "seamless" transition to the Lightning. Considering that St. Louis told Yzerman he would only waive his no-movement rights for a trade to the Rangers, getting Callahan, who could not agree on a contract extension with Rangers GM Glen Sather, a first-round draft pick and a conditional second-round pick in the deal is astonishing.
Callahan will not replace St. Louis's scoring but his work in the defensive zone on a line with centre Valtteri Filppula and surprising rookie Ondrej Palat is something the Lightning have needed for a long time.
"That line has been dynamic for us at both ends of the ice," Cooper said. "That kid knows how to play the game below the [faceoff] dots. We just haven't had a ton of those guys go through our organization. It's a great fit for us."
Callahan's hard work and competitive nature quickly rubbed off on his new teammates.
"He's one of those guys you never have to worry about in the locker room. You know what you're getting and it's 100-per cent effort," Cooper said. "You can't have enough of those guys.
"Just watch our bench when he hits somebody or takes a puck from somebody or battles in front of the net. Guys are just pumped for him. He doesn't have to come back to the bench and say anything, you just know right then what he's delivering for our team."