It was supposed to be a great day for Steven Stamkos, the day when doctors finally gave him the green light to return to the Lightning this weekend, just in time to secure his role with Team Canada for the Sochi Olympics.
Instead, the CT scan he underwent on Wednesday revealed that the leg he fractured back on Nov. 11 has not healed as well as initially thought. He can be re-evaluated in another two to three weeks, but that's too late for him. And too late for Canada.
For Stamkos, this decision means he now focuses on using the Olympic break to get healthy for Tampa Bay's playoff drive. But for Canada, it means finding a replacement for the player who was expected to be the focal point of the team's offense as it aimed to defend its gold medal.
Let's get this out of the way right here: No matter the depth of Canada's talent pool this is an absolutely devastating loss. There's no replacing what Stamkos would have brought to the table. There is no one who can match his release or his shot or his knack for finding space on the ice. That guy doesn't exist.
But that doesn't mean that there aren't quality options for Steve Yzerman and his staff to consider. There are the snubs whose omission stunned observers as well as others who have played their way into the mix in the month since the rosters were first announced on Jan. 7. The trick will be to find a player who is willing to accept a role as Canada's 13th/14th forward, but also is capable of playing on the top line if necessary.
Here are the players that Team Canada is likely sizing up at this moment.
Martin St. Louis: He's more than just the sentimental favorite. He's the elephant in the room. Yzerman damaged the morale on his club team when he didn't select his captain the first time around. If he passes on him again? You have to wonder if that relationship can be repaired.
St. Louis has been on a tear since being left off the Olympic roster, scoring points in 14 of the 16 games in which he's played while skating primarily with a pair of rookies. Sure, he's a bit one-dimensional, but his scoring is a heck of a dimension. And with the defense Canada will ice, any small deficiencies can be covered.
Still, Yzerman is in a no-win situation here. Take him or leave him, he'll face criticism for the choice--one more reason why he's unlikely to return as GM in the future.
Claude Giroux: He's playing his best hockey of the season after getting off to a very slow start. Giroux has scored six goals and 17 points in the 15 games he's played since he was snubbed by the Team Canada brass. He's a natural center, but he's also comfortable on the wing. He's quick and creative, but he's also better with the puck on his stick than without it. Canada might already have too many of those kind of guys.
Eric Staal: He's cooled off since his six-game scoring streak last month, but he's big, strong, versatile and experienced. Staal might not be the sexiest pick, but he seems like the type of player the Canadian staff is likely to be most comfortable having.
James Neal: If Team Canada is looking specifically for a sniper to stand in for Stamkos, Neal is the guy. His release is almost as electric -- probably the second best among all Canadian forwards -- and he has the size and the will to battle for position down low. He has some familiarity with Sidney Crosby, which helps, but he also has a tendency to take selfish penalties, which hurts.
Logan Couture: If the team had been picked over the summer, or even at the beginning of December, the multifaceted Couture likely would have made the cut. He was brilliant for the Sharks last spring, showing a knack for timely goal scoring, a tenacious defensive drive and a willingness to pay any price to help his team. But he had a lousy December and he's currently recuperating from an injury. He's expected to line up for San Jose this week, but the time off has likely dulled his edge too much for Team Canada's liking.
Taylor Hall: Not a buzzy candidate, but there's no denying that what he brings to the table -- speed, youth, drive, touch and more speed -- are elements Canada can use. The natural winger also is one of the game's most effective scorers at even strength, ranking second only to Ryan Getzlaf in generating results at five-on-five.
Brad Marchand: The ultimate dark horse? Maybe not. A lousy start to the season knocked him out of the running early, but Marchand earned an invite to Canada's summer camp for playing precisely the way he is now for the Bruins. He has game-breaking speed, is fearless around the net and has the type of high-end defensive acumen that's paid off with a league-leading four shorthanded goals. Add in his established chemistry with Patrice Bergeron and he'd make for a fairly safe choice. So, who gets the call? Staal looks to be the favorite, followed by St. Louis, Giroux and Marchand.