In the end, Steven Stamkos had to let go of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The 34-year-old forward was the face of the franchise -- captain, all-time leading scorer, two-time Stanley Cup champion. But the sides didn’t see eye to eye on a contract for a year.

After the Nashville Predators pursued him aggressively in free agency, he signed a four-year, $32 million contract ($8 million average annual value) with them Monday.

“You have hope until the last minute, and then when you don’t hear anything, or nothing changes, you have to be able to adapt and just make a decision,” Stamkos said. “That’s the toughest part, is trying to hang on to something that maybe isn’t trying to hang on to you.”

This goes back to last July 1, when Stamkos became eligible to sign an extension and wasn’t approached by the Lightning. He was coming off a season in which he had 84 points (34 goals, 50 assists) in 81 games and won the Mark Messier Leadership Award.

“Certainly, that was probably the start of it, the start of the writing on the wall,” Stamkos said. “I didn’t quite understand why, but I didn’t ask too many questions. I just went about [things] and played hard and didn’t let it affect me.”

Stamkos had 81 points (40 goals, 41 assists) in 79 games last season.

“After the season, I knew both sides were going to want to try to get something done and do something that was mutually beneficial for both sides,” Stamkos said. “It just felt like I was the one that was making a lot of the concessions. That certainly came into play.”

The writing was really on the wall Sunday, when the Lightning acquired the rights to pending UFA forward Jake Guentzel from the Carolina Hurricanes for a third-round pick in the 2025 NHL Draft.

Stamkos said he had a pretty good feeling Sunday night he would have to make a decision when he woke up Monday morning. The Lightning signed Guentzel to a seven-year, $63 million contract ($9 million average annual value) on Monday.

“I’m not going to lie,” Stamkos said. “It was difficult. I mean, when you’ve been in one organization your whole career, as lucky as I’ve been to be in Tampa for 16 years, by no means did I ever envision that a day like today would happen. But it did.

“And I don’t want to take away from the excitement that we have for coming to Nashville, but it was certainly a tough kind of pill to swallow when it really started to materialize that it wasn’t going to work in Tampa.

“So, you know, things happened quick throughout this week. You always have a plan, or you think you have a plan, and then it doesn’t work out, and you’ve got to go in a different direction. That’s life, right?”

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Guentzel had 77 points (30 goals, 47 assists) in 67 games for the Hurricanes and Pittsburgh Penguins last season. He is 29, five years younger than Stamkos.

“I know the fans are disappointed,” Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois said. “I know Steven’s disappointed, and I’m disappointed. Like everyone, I wanted ‘Stammer’ to stay in Tampa and finish his career with the Lightning. But like for every player, there are also limits. I felt like we had limits we could allocate in terms of cap space to him.

“Obviously, ‘Stammer’ is sincere in all of his statements that he wanted to stay in Tampa. That shouldn’t be questioned. At the same time, it was clear throughout our process that he also had financial expectations that he expected us to meet.

“Ultimately, I felt and made the decision that if I agreed to the terms that he wanted in order to get a deal done, I would not be putting ourselves in the best position to chase championships going forward.”

Asked about the gap between Tampa Bay and Nashville, Stamkos said: “What would have worked in Tampa and what worked here in Nashville are two completely different situations. I think when you’re in one place for a really long time, like I said, you’re always trying to make it work and stay, and there’s concessions from both sides, so that was a completely different situation from being a free agent on the open market.

“But the memories of Tampa will trump whatever ill will or feelings I’ve had throughout this process, because those are temporary, those are emotional decisions. As time passes, those usually go away. It’s remembering the amazing times, growing up in that city as an 18-year-old kid to where I am now, having a family, obviously winning. The fans, the city, everything has been first class, and those are the things you remember.

“You’re sad it didn’t work out maybe the way you wanted to, but a new chapter is opening up in my family’s life, and that’s something we’re excited about.”

Stamkos’ legacy in Tampa Bay will remain. The Lightning selected him with the No. 1 pick of the 2008 NHL Draft. He won the NHL goal-scoring title in 2009-10 and 2011-12 and the Cup in 2020 and 2021. He was captain for more than a decade and leads the franchise in several categories, including games played (1,082), goals (555) and points (1,137).

Lightning legends Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis each left Tampa Bay to play elsewhere, only to return to have his number retired. Maybe one day Stamkos will come back to be honored too.

“I hope so,” Stamkos said. “No one was leaving these negotiations with any sort of real animosity or ill will. It is what it is. And like I said, I understand the business side of it from both sides. It doesn’t mean I have to agree with it. It doesn’t mean that if I was in someone else’s shoes that I would do it the same way. But that’s just life.

“You have to look out for the best interests of yourself sometimes and your family, and like I said, you may want something really bad, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out.” independent correspondent Corey Long contributed to this report

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