At least spending the summer back home in Toronto gave Steven Stamkos the comic relief he needed throughout his long contract negotiations with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Stamkos' intention all along was to re-sign with the Lightning as he did Tuesday, but he had to laugh out loud upon hearing and seeing some of the rumors that included his name and future over the past several weeks. He couldn't ignore the fact that so many people were speculating about why he hadn't signed yet and who would eventually extend the restricted free agent an offer sheet.
"I actually got a couple of texts from friends with a picture of my face photoshopped on Phil Kessel's body," Stamkos said Tuesday night on a conference call announcing his new five-year contract reportedly worth $37.5 million. "Some people thought it was a legit photo. When they sent it to me I cracked up. I couldn't hold my laugh in that people were circulating that photo and thought it was real. That was comical."
There are many factors that have to come together to give a team the wherewithal to toss a significant offer sheet at a restricted free agent. It has to be a perfect storm of events. Chief among them, the targeted team has to be vulnerable.
The Bolts, under the ownership of hedge-fund millionaire Jeff Vinik, aren't vulnerable.
Stamkos signs for a predictable $7.5 million cap hit. He gets $32 million in real dollars over the first four years of the deal. In the final year, he'll get $5.5 million and a no-move clause.
In the summer of 2016, depending on the CBA rules in effect at that time, Stamkos will be positioned for an even bigger kick at the free agent can.
He just has to keep producing 40 and 50 goal seasons. Easy enough, right?
For me, this new deal works for both the player and team. The dollars are right and the term provides a flexibility that both sides could benefit from in the future.
-- E.J. Hradek
Stamkos admitted that the rumors grew "tiresome," but he never lost a minute of sleep throughout the negotiations that took longer than both he and Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman could have anticipated.
"The process takes some time," Yzerman said. "We started at this last fall and you watch the season unfold. Once you don't have a deal done prior to playoffs, you take time off there, which delays things. Then the season ends and we all take care of other matters and negotiations. It just does take some time and some compromise on both sides to eventually reach a deal."
However, Yzerman was taking a calculated risk by not getting Stamkos under contract by noon ET July 1, when the player with the most goals in the NHL during the past two seasons (96) became a restricted free agent and able to sign an offer sheet with another club.
"We were prepared to deal with that," Yzerman said. "We have the right to match an offer sheet and as long as we have the right to match it we know we're not losing the player."
But, to Stamkos' knowledge, no offer ever came and he never once thought of playing for another team.
Bottom line, Stamkos wasn't going anywhere, and now he's with the Lightning for at least five more years at an average annual salary of $7.5 million, which puts him in the top 10 in the NHL in terms of cap hits, but second on his team behind captain Vinny Lecavalier.
Stamkos' new contract takes him until he's 26 years old. He said a five-year deal "just made sense.”
"It takes me one year past being eligible for unrestricted free agency and that's usually the year that if teams want to lock you up again they work on an extension," Stamkos said. "It was comfortable from the team's point of view and for me it was comfortable as well. It keeps you motivated and wanting more."
Despite the amount of time it took to come to an agreement -- Stamkos and Yzerman both mentioned that negotiations began at the beginning of last season -- Stamkos said "there was really no rush."
However, he seemed relieved that the contract was finally announced Tuesday and said he was going to celebrate by going out for a nice family dinner, the only luxury he said he's affording himself at this time despite being a much wealthier man today than he was yesterday.
"With our long playoff run (to the conference finals) it delayed everything and that's where all those rumors and stuff started swirling, especially on July 1," Stamkos said. "It was never a worry for me. It was just finding something I was comfortable with and the team. However long it took, both sides knew it was going to get done eventually. I'm excited we got it done so I don't have to be worried about those rumors anymore."
He instead will immediately focus on keeping the Lightning among the Stanley Cup contenders in 2011-12.
Tampa Bay extended itself to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals this past season before losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins. Stamkos said the experience of playing in 18 games in a single postseason is "invaluable" and something he now hopes to build on with Tampa Bay's core returning virtually in tact.
"Let's all keep in mind he's only 21," Yzerman said of Stamkos. "He's played three years in the League and his best years are ahead of him. He's a very committed player, very serious about what he does. I think this was a great season for him in that we were able to go through three rounds in the playoffs and he really competed hard in those and battled through some injuries. He's just going to continue to improve because he's very motivated and wants to get better in all areas."
Yzerman said he's most impressed with Stamkos' competitive level when the games get bigger.
"He really asserts himself," Yzerman said. "The excitement of a big game brings out the best in him. Regardless of statistics, when games were important, he looked comfortable and was very assertive in those games."
Stamkos is ready for more of them, at least five years worth.
"With Steve coming from the Red Wings model, they realize the type of team they have and that's the feeling we have in Tampa now," Stamkos said. "We can build a core bunch of guys that can be here for a long time and hopefully win a Stanley Cup one day. That's the message."
I remember the first time at Wrigley Field all of us had the long johns, the turtlenecks and the extra equipment because we were afraid of being cold. Halfway through the first period everybody's ripping everything off and we just ended up wearing what we would normally wear for a game at the United Center.
— Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp on the 2009 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic