Even when the 2015 offseason morphed into the 2016 offseason and seemingly no progress had been made in the stalemate between the two sides, Stamkos expressed his hope a deal would eventually be completed before he became an unrestricted free agent on July 1.
So too did Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, even through last weekend’s NHL Draft in Buffalo when the window teams could openly reach out and pursue Stamkos began.
Wednesday evening, the patience of both Stamkos and Yzerman was rewarded.
Following a call earlier in the day Wednesday from Stamkos’ agent Don Meehan of Newport Sports to Yzerman to figure out a way to complete the deal, Stamkos officially re-signed with the Lightning for eight more years, guaranteeing Stamkos will play the majority of his career in Tampa Bay and potentially his entire career in the Bay Area and ended the hopes of numerous other NHL franchises who hoped to become an immediate contender by signing the two-time “Rocket” Richard Trophy winner and four-time All-Star.
“I just felt that this was the best decision for myself and my family,” Stamkos said during a conference call with media Thursday afternoon. “This organization, starting with (Lightning owner Jeff) Vinik and Steve Yzerman, the coaching staff, it’s people that I believe in. I want to win. We’ve been close in Tampa. When I said I wanted to be here throughout the season, I really truly meant that.”
Added Yzerman during his own press conference Wednesday night: “I think I can speak on behalf of everybody here in Tampa: We are very, very happy. We’re thrilled to be able to make this announcement.”
So why did Stamkos take the proverbial hometown discount to remain with the Lightning? Surely he could have commanded more money on the open market, the Lightning unable, because of salary cap ramifications, to match some of the high dollar figures being thrown out by media as other teams’ primary bargaining chip. After all, goal scorers of Stamkos’ proficiency come around but once or twice a decade. Since entering the league for the 2008-09 season, only Washington’s Alex Ovechkin has more goals (362) and goals-per game (0.61) than Stamkos (312, 0.55).
Well, for one, Stamkos doesn’t want to go through another rebuilding process. He’s done that before during the early stages of his career with the Lightning.
He wants to win.
Tampa Bay offered the best opportunity for him to hoist his first Stanley Cup, the Bolts coming within two games two years ago in the Cup Final versus Chicago and returning to the Eastern Conference Final this past season and taking eventual Cup winner Pittsburgh to seven games.
Stamkos has worked tirelessly throughout the first eight years of his career to turn Tampa Bay from the worst team in the league when it drafted him with the first overall selection in the 2008 Draft to one of the league’s winningest franchises over the last few seasons.
But secondly, and maybe more importantly, Tampa and the Bay Area have become home for Stamkos. He moved to the area when he was 18 years old. His first job as a professional was with the Lightning. He’s spent the last eight years here and, by all accounts, is very happy and satisfied with the life he’s built for himself in Tampa.
Much was made during the rampant speculation concerning Stamkos’ eventual destination about the fact he grew up in the Toronto suburb of Markham, Ontario, a quick 45-minute drive away from the Air Canada Centre. The allure of the hometown boy returning to spark a moribund franchise, one that he grew up rooting for as a kid, had to weigh on Stamkos’ mind, and he alluded to as much during his post-signing conference call.
But, in the end, why mess up a good thing? It’s cliché, but maybe the grass isn’t always greener. Sure, Toronto would have provided the opportunity to play closer to certain family and friends, but what about the increased media scrutiny playing in Canada’s hockey mecca? Or the lack of privacy a career in Toronto would have undoubtedly created? Or the bone-chilling winters he would have to reacclimate to?
“If I didn’t want to be in Tampa, I wouldn’t be in Tampa,” Stamkos said. “The reason why I re-signed there was because I love it there, the organization has been nothing but first class to my family and I over the first eight years of my career and the potential to win is there, and those are things that for me makes a difference in wanting to be here. I’m really excited about the decision I made.”
At 26, Stamkos is entering the prime of his career according to Yzerman, which is saying a lot considering he’s led the Lightning for goals in six of the last seven seasons and has recorded 35 or more goals in five of his eight years in the league. He’s also a PR dream: a man of high character, a player who doesn’t shy away from answering the tough questions but also does so diplomatically, a superstar without an ego (and if he does have one, it never shows).
“He’s very loyal,” Yzerman added. “He’s an independent thinker and he can make a very difficult decision. Mostly I think, he really wants to win. That’s his No. 1 priority. The fact that he wanted to stay with us: He believes in the organization. He loves the city, loves the town.”
So, if Stamkos returning to Tampa Bay was such a slam dunk, why did it take so long to get a deal completed? Why wasn’t the situation taken care of last offseason, when Yzerman stated the organization’s number one goal was re-signing its captain and Stamkos maintained his desire to stay?
For starters, this decision was, to date, the most important one Stamkos would make in his professional career. The potential to become a free agent represented an opportunity to set himself and his family up for life. Why shouldn’t he take a peak and see just how much he could command on the open market?
Stamkos was pitched in the last week by a handful of teams during the open window, but, in the end, none of their sales pitches could match the total package Tampa Bay offered.
“For me, it was just following your heart and being loyal to the organization that has brought me up and made me the player and person I am today,” Stamkos said. “There are times in life, whether it’s in business or your everyday life or sports, that you let the mind wander a little bit, but I think I knew deep down the whole time that I wanted to be in Tampa. When you get this far and this close to free agency, for me it was worth looking at the possibilities. But if you could go back through this last year and change a few things, I probably would have knowing I was going to stay here. But that’s life. That’s the way it is and you have to adapt. And at the end of the day, I made the decision that was going to make my family and I happy and hopefully the organization of Tampa happy and the fans and the whole city of Tampa.”
Without question, Bolts nation breathed a collective sigh of relief when the news broke Stamkos would remain with the organization for at least eight more seasons.
The captain is staying home.