TORONTO – It’s late in the afternoon, and Steven Stamkos has spent the day being asked in every way conceivable about his contract negotiations with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Which of course means we’ll ask him again.
“And I’ll hit you with the same answer I’ve given everyone else,” he said, with a laugh. “I’m not saying [expletive]!”
Nor would anyone expect him to. Stamkos is feverously trying to leave his contract talks out of the public forum, trying to compartmentalize this ongoing drama with GM Steve Yzerman and keep it away from his preparation for the Lightning’s Eastern Conference title defense.
“It definitely hasn’t changed my approach to the summer, and I’m excited to get back to Tampa with the guys again, and not hang our hats on last season," he said.
“Obviously with Steve, he’s pretty professional. Same thing with Newport Sports, my agency. There’s been discussions. But everything is going to be kept internally. It’s something that, for me, as been a long process so far. Who knows how much longer it’s going to be?"
Hopefully not too much longer. The contract talks overshadow Lightning camp, and will do the same for the regular season should they linger. This isn’t some free agent that can walk away and be easily replaced with a cheaper model; this is a 25-year-old star captain with 276 career goals in 492 games, the face of a franchise who would break the bank (as well as the Internet and the frugality of many team owners) as an unrestricted free agent next summer.
This is Steven Stamkos, and the contract he signs with the Lightning will determine the course of the franchise for the next decade.
If he signs.
For Stamkos, the effect his contract will have on the Lightning’s economics is front of mind.
Let’s say he signs a contract north of the ones Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane inked with the Chicago Blackhawks: $84-million, eight-year contracts with a $10.5-million cap hit.
What do they pay star defenseman Victor Hedman, up for a new deal in 2017? Or Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, on their way to becoming a Datsyuk and Zetterberg (on a lesser scale) for the Lightning for years to come? And when they do pay them, what will they have left for the rest of the roster? And if they don’t, what becomes of this Lightning contender that challenged for the Stanley Cup under Jon Cooper last postseason?
“We know how the business works," said Hedman. "Just look at Chicago,”
This is the sweet spot Stamkos is trying to hit in his talks with the Lightning: a salary worthy of one of hockey’s elite offensive talents, but one that isn’t going to turn his team into a top-heavy economic boondoggle. (Something, frankly, Lightning fans have seen before.)
“It’s a tough situation to be in. As a professional athlete, we want to win. That’s what you came into this league to do, and you want to be put into a situation where you can win,” said Stamkos. “I’ve always been a big believer that the contract stuff will take care of itself. You can find something that’s great for the player and great for the team.”
What’s great for the team, however, might not be great for Stamkos.
What's great for the Lightning at the moment? Playing Stamkos on the wing. What's great for Stamkos? Playing his natural spot at center.
There were rumblings during the Stanley Cup Playoffs that Stamkos wasn’t happy with his usage by Cooper. (Rumors buoyed by a series of tweets by Det. Donald Cherry of the Toronto police.) Elliotte Friedman has also heard that his playing on the wing has been a point of discussion in contract negotiations.
Stamkos wouldn’t confirm that his lineup role is an issue in his decision, and said that circumstances can change throughout the season even if he’s assigned a certain position by Cooper.
“We can have discussions throughout the season. There’s a healthy relationship between the coaching staff and players. Everyone’s just trying to do what’s best for the team, help the team win. That doesn’t change,” he said.
“There’s a lot of things that go one behind closed doors. People like to speculate a lot about what’s holding up certain things. There’s a lot of different variables. It’s not necessarily all about money.”
No, it’s not, for Stamkos and the Lightning. And that's what has stretched these contract talks into the weeks before training camp, and potentially even deeper into the season.
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