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Stamkos decides grass greener with Lightning

Other options paled in comparison to Tampa Bay captain staying put

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

You imagined Steven Stamkos sitting in the offices of Newport Sports in Mississauga, Ontario, as teams lined up with flowers, chocolates and depth charts.

Or you imagined him touring North America, visiting places like Buffalo, Detroit and Vancouver, because he already knew Tampa and Toronto so well.

But despite many teams expressing interest, there was no grand display and no grand tour for Stamkos during the interview period that began Saturday. At least some of the teams that expressed interest never were invited to make pitches to him personally.

And in the end, less than 48 hours before he was to become one of the biggest names ever to hit unrestricted free agency in the NHL, Stamkos decided to stay with the Tampa Bay Lightning and signed an eight-year contract that TSN reports is worth $68 million.

Video: NYI@TBL: Stamkos jams home rebound for 35th goal

Why wait so long and then decide not to explore the entire market, let alone test it? Why sign a contract with a reported average annual value of $8.5 million, when you might have gotten one with a much higher AAV?

This was an opportunity for Stamkos. It was also a dilemma.

Stamkos is 26 and an elite goal-scorer. He has won two goal-scoring titles and averaged 0.55 goals per game in his NHL career, second among active players to Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin (0.63).

At his age and at a time when goals are at a premium in the NHL, he commands a premium price, even though teams are reluctant to allocate too much salary-cap space to one player when depth is so important.

Teams like, say, the Lightning.

Hence the dilemma.

Stamkos has it great in Tampa Bay. He is the face of the franchise and captain of the team. He has a good chance to win, considering the Lightning went to the Stanley Cup Final last year with him and came within a game of returning this year without him. He sat out the Stanley Cup Playoffs after surgery for a blood clot until Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, which the Lightning lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Video: TBL@DAL: Stamkos nets a pair of goals

The Lightning were able to offer him a contract as long as eight years under the collective bargaining agreement, while others could have offered him a contract only as long as seven years.

Oh, Florida doesn't have state income tax, either.

So why didn't Stamkos re-sign with the Lightning long ago? Well, he wants to play center, and coach Jon Cooper prefers him on the wing. But the big problem was the Lightning couldn't pay him what he could get on the open market and keep enough of the supporting cast together to have a good chance to win.

Forwards Alex Killorn and Nikita Kucherov are restricted free agents this year. Forwards Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat are scheduled to be restricted free agents next year, when defenseman Victor Hedman is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent.

General manager Steve Yzerman could not afford to give Stamkos too much while other teams might have been prepared to give Stamkos one of the highest average annual values in the League, maybe even higher than the $10.5 million the Chicago Blackhawks gave both Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

The choice for Stamkos came down to this: less money and a better chance to win in Tampa Bay, or more money and a lesser chance to win elsewhere. It might not have been more money elsewhere considering taxes, at least not that much more, but it almost certainly would have been a lesser chance to win, at least at the start.

Detroit? The Red Wings have made the playoffs for 25 straight seasons, have talented youngsters, including Dylan Larkin, and are moving into a new arena in 2017-18. They need a No. 1 center, especially now that Pavel Datsyuk has decided to leave the NHL. But they have lost in the first round of the playoffs three years in a row, the last two years to the Lightning. Stamkos had to ask himself if they could contend for the Cup again with him.

Buffalo? The Sabres have restocked with young players like Jack Eichel, the second pick in the draft last year. General manager Tim Murray said Saturday the Sabres were going after the "big fish" in free agency and weren't afraid to spend to reel Stamkos in, because they had enough players on less-expensive contracts to surround him. Murray also said Stamkos would play center. But they have missed the playoffs for five straight seasons. Stamkos had to wonder when the Sabres would make the playoffs with him, let alone contend for the Cup.

Toronto? The Maple Leafs are Stamkos' hometown team. They made Auston Matthews the No. 1 pick in the NHL Draft on Friday. But coach Mike Babcock might not have committed to playing Stamkos at center, and they have missed the playoffs three years in a row and 10 times in the last 11 seasons. Stamkos had to wonder about the Maple Leafs the same as he did about the Sabres: When will they make the playoffs, let alone contend for the Cup?

Vancouver? Montreal? Boston? New York, whether the Islanders or Rangers? None were sure things. The only sure thing was the paradox of choice: more options, more stress. It's a nice problem to have to take less money when less money means an average of $8.5 million per year, but it was a dilemma nonetheless. At this point, the big surprise is Stamkos never really peeked at the other side to see how green the grass would have been.

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