It's complicated: Martin St-Louis returns to Tampa Bay for first time since split

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It's complicated: Martin St-Louis returns to Tampa Bay for first time since split
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Cheer. Boo. Cheer and boo. If you root for the Lightning, do whatever you feel is right when Martin St-Louis returns to Tampa Bay with the New York Rangers on Wednesday night. It’s your team. It’s your former captain. He left, and now he's back, and he happens to be two points from 1,000. It’s complicated.

Mixed emotions are OK. Intense emotions are OK.

Emotion is what the St-Louis story is all about. It’s what drove him to success in Tampa Bay. It’s what drove him away. In the big picture, whether you cheer or boo or both, it’s great for hockey because you care.

Brad Richards said it best in the Tampa Bay Times. He played for the Lightning from 2000-01 to 2007-08, winning the Stanley Cup with St-Louis in 2004. “When I got there,” he said, “fans wouldn’t have cared if somebody left.”

St-Louis once was asked how he continued to play at a high level.

“Obviously I’m getting older,” he said. “But I try to find a way …”

Pause.

“I don’t lose the edge.”

Remember how St-Louis reached a high level in the first place. The man is 5-foot-8. He was never drafted. He had to prove he could play, and he did it with a fierce, independent will.

He came out of the University of Vermont and played for the Cleveland Lumberjacks in the International Hockey League. He signed with the Calgary Flames as a free agent in February 1998 and reported to the minors. For two years, he bounced between the National Hockey League and the American Hockey League.

St-Louis won a Hart Trophy, two scoring titles and a Stanley Cup with the Lightning. (AP)
St-Louis won a Hart Trophy, two scoring titles and a Stanley Cup with the Lightning. (AP)

Then he signed with the Lightning as a free agent. He not only proved he could play, he won the scoring title and the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player in 2003-04. In the Cup final – against the Flames, of all teams – he scored in double overtime of Game 6. That forced Game 7. That led to the first Cup in franchise history. He won another scoring title in 2012-13 – at age 37.

St-Louis produced 953 points in 972 games with the Lightning. He put up 61 points in 62 games with the Lightning last season, even though superstar linemate Steven Stamkos went down with a broken leg, even though he wanted out.

Was he motivated because Steve Yzerman – the Tampa Bay general manager and Team Canada executive director – left him off the original roster for the Sochi Olympics after snubbing him for the Vancouver Olympics? Absolutely. Yzerman announced the roster Jan. 7. St-Louis went on a tear after that with eight goals and 14 points in 10 games. Yzerman ended up putting him on the roster to replace Stamkos.

But that’s Marty. That has always been Marty, for better or for worse.

That’s his edge.

“I know sometimes people are not happy with the decisions you make, and I get it,” St-Louis told reporters. “But I can honestly look at myself in the mirror and I know that I gave my heart and soul to this franchise for 14 years, and it was just time to move on. I’m really happy where I am right now.”

A lot of people are still unhappy with the decision St-Louis made. He pouted when Yzerman didn’t pick him for Sochi. He asked for a trade when he was the captain of the Lightning, and he limited the market to one team, and he did it at a time when the Lightning was holding it together without Stamkos and seemed poised to take another step when Stamkos came back. He didn’t cool off when he finally went to Sochi, anyway.

Did it not occur to him that Yzerman wasn’t alone in his opinion? That Yzerman consulted with the other executives and coaches? St-Louis played five games in Sochi but as an extra forward. He had zero points.

But again, that’s Marty. And it wasn’t all about the Olympics. He made his off-season home in Connecticut, where he trained hard with Ben Prentiss, and had been interested in going to New York for a while for family reasons. It has worked out all right for everyone – and should look even better for the Lightning in the long term.

St-Louis went where he wanted to go, and the Rangers made the Cup final. The Lightning lost its captain and fell in the first round. But Stamkos took the ‘C,’ and Yzerman got a great return under the circumstances.

Yzerman landed Rangers captain Ryan Callahan, a pending unrestricted free agent in a contract dispute. He re-signed him to a six-year, $34.8 million deal. He also landed two first-round picks and flipped one of them for two second-round picks. So he took a 39-year-old with one year left on his deal limiting the market to one team, and he turned him into a 29-year-old he locked up, plus prospects Dominik Masin and Johnathan MacLeod, plus a first-rounder in 2015.

It’s interesting that Yzerman, as reserved as he is, hasn’t spoken much publicly about St-Louis’ return. Coach Jon Cooper couldn’t avoid the subject because he was required to speak to the media, but he pointed out St-Louis had a stronger connection with the community than he did with the team. The dressing room continued to turn over in the off-season. The Bolts themselves have moved on pretty well. They are 14-6-2, second in the Atlantic. The Rangers are 9-7-4, third in the Metropolitan.

“Sometimes family members get in a fight, and I think that’s what happened,” Cooper told reporters. “Sometimes they make up, sometimes they don’t. And this is a pretty big family. So the chances of [the fans] all forgiving are probably not there. So I’m sure he’s going to hear it on both ends of the spectrum.”

That would be fine.

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