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Stamkos injury another blow to Lightning; could open door for Drouin

And so a Tampa Bay Lightning season that has tested the patience and belief of coaches, management, players and fans to the nth degree suddenly became even more dire Saturday night with the announcement that captain Steven Stamkos would be lost to the team for between one and three months because of a vascular issue.

The news throws a pall over the 2015 Stanley Cup finalists as they head into the final week of the regular season contemplating a playoff run without their captain and leading goal scorer.

Stamkos was surprisingly held out of Saturday's win over the New Jersey Devils and the announcement that he would undergo surgery Monday for a vascular condition near his right collarbone came after the game.

According to the website for the Society for Thorasic Surgery, the condition from which Stamkos is suffering -- vascular thoracic outlet syndrome -- results from a compression of nerves and/or blood vessels that serve the arms. Those suffering from the condition are usually otherwise healthy, active people, the site indicated.

With medical treatment and rehab there are usually no long-term effects, the site indicated. While the long-term prognosis is good for the scoring star who didn't miss a game during the last two seasons before Saturday, the medical issue further obfuscates Stamkos' future with the Lightning as well as throwing their chances of playoff success into further chaos.

GM Steve Yzerman described it to reporters as "incredibly bad luck for us" and then noted that even that was an understatement.

Earlier this month the team lost the services of one of its key defenders, Anton Stralman, when he suffered a fractured fibula. It's unknown when he might return, although he told local reporters he hopes to return in the playoffs.

Stamkos, via a team release, also indicated a similar sentiment, saying, "During my recovery I will do all I can to help my teammates, and I hope to rejoin them soon in the Stanley Cup Playoffs."

But just how does Stamkos' absence handicap the Lightning's ability to replicate their long playoff run of last spring?

The 26-year-old leads the team with 36 goals, and his eight game winners are also tops for the Lightning. He is tied for the team lead with 64 points.

In short, without Stamkos and Stralman, the Lightning will face a significant hurdle in staying alive long enough for these key players to return.

Bigger picture, observers are now wondering if Stamkos has played his last game as a member of the Lightning.

Of course the issue of the captain's contract situation has dogged the team all season as hopes that Stamkos would sign a long-term extension at some point have gone by the wayside. Instead, his future with the team remains uncertain as he can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

His medical condition and long-term absence from the team will only intensify that uncertainty.

Yzerman reiterated what he has said all season: that he hopes to find a way to bring Stamkos under contract, but the future of the Lightning, both in the coming days and later in the offseason, continues to remain very much out of focus.

One possible repercussion of Stamkos' absence from the team as the playoffs begin in a week and a half is how this might effect prospect Jonathan Drouin. The No. 3 overall draft pick in 2013 has been at the center of a firestorm of controversy this season when he asked for a trade in November and then left the team shortly after being sent to the minors in January.

Drouin rejoined the Lightning's American Hockey League affiliate shortly after the Feb. 29 trade deadline and has played well. He has 12 points in 16 games with Syracuse and Yzerman did say when Drouin rejoined the Crunch that it was possible he could be back with the big club this season.

With Stamkos out, the team will need all the offensive help it can get and maybe Drouin will get a chance to further redeem himself, although Yzerman told reporters after Saturday's game he hasn't made any decisions on roster moves in the wake of Stamkos' diagnosis.

Yzerman did acknowledge that Drouin was an option they would have to consider as the story of this Lightning season continues to unfold in ways that few could have anticipated.