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Victor Hedman gives Lightning staying power

Defenseman's contract extension, Stamkos re-signing strong signals from Tampa Bay leadership

by Tom Gulitti @tomgulittinhl / Staff Writer

When the week began, the Tampa Bay Lightning faced the possibility of losing their captain, Steven Stamkos, as an unrestricted free agent and an uncertain future beyond that.

That all changed in less than 48 hours. General manager Steve Yzerman locked up Stamkos with an eight-year, $68 million contract on Wednesday and followed up on Friday by signing cornerstone defenseman Victor Hedman to an eight-year extension worth an average of $7.875 million and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy to a three-year extension with an average annual value of $3.5 million.

With all the money being spent on unrestricted free agents on Friday, Yzerman and the Lightning were perhaps the League's biggest winners by taking care of their own to ensure their competitive stability into the next decade. In the shorter term, they appear set up to make another run at winning the Stanley Cup this season.

"It all came down to both of us wanted to stay and be in Tampa," Hedman said. "We have a lot of good friends on that team and we're a close group. It made the decision way easier. We want to keep a competitive group and have a competitive team. For us moving forward, it's going to be important for everyone to buy into that. For me and [Stamkos], we want to win together. That was a big goal that we have, is to go all the way together with Tampa."

The Lightning came within two victories of doing that in 2014-15 before falling to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games in the Stanley Cup Final. Last season, despite Stamkos missing all of the Stanley Cup Playoffs until Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final because of a blood clot, they came within one win of returning to the Cup Final before falling to the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

Video: Lightning lock up Hedman with eight-year extension

After that 2-1 Game 7 loss to the Penguins, the biggest question was whether that would be this group's last, best shot at the Cup. Stamkos, 26, led the way in making sure that was not the case.

His decision to forego a bigger payday on the unrestricted free agent market set the example for the Lightning, and Hedman followed it. If Hedman, 25, had waited until next summer, he would have likely been the most highly sought unrestricted free agent on the market.

He had no interest in that.

"Staying in Tampa was the No. 1 priority, and to get it done the first day available was the goal from both sides," Hedman said. "[Stamkos] signing a couple of days ago was a big boost for me, as well. That says a lot about the type of guy he is, the leader he is on the team. We want to keep a competitive team. We had a special group down there and a great organization, great management and great coaching.

"So, for me, it was a never a doubt."

Although last season didn't end the way Yzerman hoped, he has established himself as one of the top GMs in the League over the last year with the way he has handled some tricky situations.

When 2013 NHL Draft first-round pick Jonathan Drouin requested a trade and left the Lightning's American Hockey League team in Syracuse, Yzerman remained patient. Rather than make a panic trade for less than full value before the Feb. 29 League deadline, Yzerman held onto the 21-year-old forward. Drouin eventually returned and played extremely well during the Lightning's playoff run.

Yzerman never blinked or got into a public negotiation with Stamkos' camp as the days ticked away without the sides agreeing on a contract. Stamkos talked to some teams during the free agency interview period, but eventually decided to stay with the Lightning and helped the organization in the process by taking less money.

Video: TBL@PIT, Gm7: Vasilevskiy and Hedman keep puck out

"There's, I believe, a willingness." Yzerman said. "It starts with [Stamkos] and, hopefully, it helps with all the players that, 'Hey, we want to be here, we enjoy playing together, and let's get our contracts done and get back to work.'"

There is still work for Yzerman to do with key restricted free agent forwards Nikita Kucherov, 23 and Alex Killorn, 26, to be re-signed. Yzerman's biggest decision will be whether to hold onto No. 1 goaltender Ben Bishop or move him while his trade value is high and give the job to Vasilevskiy.

If Yzerman keeps Bishop, who is slated to become an unrestricted free agent after this season, and re-signs him, he knows with an expansion draft coming next June, "if one of these two guys is available, they're going to get claimed."

That means Yzerman will have to eventually choose between Bishop and Vasilevskiy. Yzerman said Vasilevskiy's contract extension was not an indication he already has made that decision.

"I have an idea in mind of what I want to do, and I don't want to share that with you," Yzerman said. "We'll just see how things play along here. If something that makes sense happens a day from now, a month from now, at the deadline, we'll look at it and we're prepared if need be. And it wouldn't be the worst situation in the world [to] have two very good goaltenders to play the year out."

Regardless, the Lightning are set up for long-term success after their future appeared unclear a few days ago.

"When [Stamkos'] contract gets done and he wants to be here, Victor follows along and we're happy, obviously," Yzerman said. "We have a really close bunch of guys. I think they have a lot of fun together. They enjoy playing together and they've had some success and they want to continue that."

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