Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos doesn't know how his surgically repaired right knee will respond once the 2017-18 regular season gets started.
Stamkos can't say whether he's finally 100 percent healthy either.
But what Stamkos does know is that he feels better now than he has at any point since suffering a lateral meniscus tear to his knee on November 15, 2016 at Detroit, and, after playing in four preseason games to get ready for the 2017-18 season, he hasn't experienced any issues or setbacks derailing his progress.
Stamkos finished the preseason recording five points (all assists) in four games, ranking third on the Bolts for preseason scoring.
Video: Stamkos on intensity level in win over Predators
"All summer, all the skates, no one's hitting you, no one's bumping you," Stamkos said following Monday's practice at the Ice Sports Forum. "In practice, camp, guys aren't going to bump me, aren't going to hit me. So that's where the unknown was. I hadn't really had a lot of contact. Now to get in those four preseason games where the other team doesn't give a crap about hitting you, it was good to see how (the knee) responded. I think it was three games that I played in five nights too. You're not going to get much tougher than that other than a back to back. I was very pleased with how it responded. That's why I said I felt better than expected because I hadn't experienced all those things yet, so it was good to see how the body responded."
Stamkos expects to be in the lineup when the Lightning open 2017-18 at AMALIE Arena versus the Florida Panthers. Whether he'll immediately return to the Stamkos who put up 20 points in 17 games at the start of last season, who was playing some of the best hockey of his career according to the superstar center, remains to be seen.
It could take time for Stamkos to reach his pre-injury level of play.
Or maybe it won't.
"The only way to find out is to get into those regular season games and put yourself through that test," Stamkos said. "Like I said at the beginning of camp, coming into camp, (the knee) felt better than I was expecting it to. Played four preseason games, had no issues, felt better than I was expecting it to. Hopefully that trend continues, and I can come back and do the best that I can and hopefully get back to that level where I was playing before the injury."
Stamkos worked doggedly to return from injury late last season with the Lightning pushing for the postseason. Stamkos, however, wasn't able to make it back, and the Bolts missed out on the playoffs despite going 8-1-1 over the final 10 games.
In retrospect, Stamkos says he probably wasn't close to returning to the lineup, at least not after comparing how his knee feels now to where it was in early April.
"I kind of have learned through the years, when I broke my leg and wasn't ready for the Olympics, I didn't come back right away after the Olympic break, I waited a little bit and it makes that much of a difference when you can have even another month, training, strengthening , mentally gaining some confidence in it," Stamkos said. "Although it was tough not to make the playoffs, for selfish reasons, it was probably best for me personally health-wise to have that long summer to train and to get ready."
POTENTIAL OPENING NIGHT LINES: At Monday's practice, the Lightning used virtually the same lines they showed in Saturday's preseason finale at Nashville.
Vladislav Namestnikov returned to the top line along with Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. Yanni Gourde moved up to second line right wing with Ondrej Palat (left wing) and Brayden Point (center). Tyler Johnson was on the third line centering Alex Killorn (left) and Ryan Callahan (right). And Cedric Paquette centered the fourth line with Chris Kunitz to his left and a combination of Gabriel Dumont and J.T. Brown to his right.
Following practice, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper suggested those could very well be the lines the Bolts use on opening night against the Panthers.
"We're looking for lines that work and have synergy," Cooper said. "If I look at our seven preseason games, the last one (at Nashville) was probably the best we had going with that. And so, we like having Point down the middle. To me, maybe we're a little deeper line depth down the middle. But more than anything, it's just looking for synergy."
Erik Condra also participated in practice Monday but continued to wear a red, no-contact jersey. He slipped onto the second line intermittently, replacing Palat when he did.
The Bolts defensive pairings remained the same too: Victor Hedman and Jake Dotchin; Mikhail Sergachev and Anton Stralman; Slater Koekkoek with Andrej Sustr; Braydon Coburn with Dan Girardi.
SERGACHEV STILL IN CAMP: With the Lightning continuing to whittle their roster down to the necessary 23 for opening night following the re-assignments of Nicola Riopel to Adirondack and Cory Conacher to Syracuse, it's looking more and more likely 19-year-old defenseman Mikhail Sergachev will be on the roster when the Bolts battle the Panthers Friday night.
Sergachev played in six of Tampa Bay's seven exhibition games and got better each time he stepped onto the ice according to Cooper.
Video: Sergachev on playing with Stralman
"He's improved from the day he got here until now," Cooper said. "His ceiling is really high, but there should be no expectations on a 19-year-old kid. I don't think for anybody in the league there should be expectations like that. He's ahead of the curve of where most players are his age. I really like, if he makes a mistake and you talk to him about it, he goes out there and tries to fix it. He's coachable. He's been a great fit for us...He's put himself in a position to be with our team right now, and that's really good for him. It shows his talent level and how he's worked for it."
Sergachev scored a goal in his Lightning preseason debut in Carolina and added two assists to lead all Bolts' blueliners for preseason scoring.
"I'm just going to keep going and just try to build more and more confidence and play with more confidence," Sergachev said.