Why Steven Stamkos’ future is Lightning’s top offseason priority

SUNRISE — Steven Stamkos’ season, and potentially his time in a Lightning uniform, had just ended after a Game 5 loss to the Panthers in the first round of the playoffs. He was asked whether he had allowed any thoughts about his uncertain future to creep into his head as the clock wound down Monday night.

“No, no, that never crossed my mind,” Stamkos said following the 6-1 loss at Amerant Bank Arena. “I’m out there battling to try to help our team win regardless. At the end of the game, we’re trying to score. There’s some pride on the line for our group, so no.”

Stamkos has worn the captain’s “C” on his jersey since 2014. He’s been the face of the Lightning since he was drafted first overall in 2008. He has been the most consistent contributor during an era in which the franchise grew into one of the league’s best both on and off the ice.

Stamkos arrived in Tampa as a teenage wunderkind and has become a husband, father, Rocket Richard winner, Stanley Cup champion and future Hall of Famer, all while making Tampa Bay his adopted home. The fans love him, and he loves the life he’s made here.

At age 34 on a team full of talent and postseason cache, Stamkos was the Lightning’s best skater during their brief playoff run. He did everything he could to will Tampa Bay to victory following a regular season in which he helped lead a struggling team out of the muck to claim a postseason spot.

It would be strange to imagine him in any other uniform. But as the Lightning enter the offseason, their biggest question, without question, is whether they can make Stamkos a career Bolt.

Now, with him about to become an unrestricted free agent, there’s no question that general manager Julien BriseBois, Lightning players and Stamkos himself want him to remain in Tampa Bay.

Stamkos has spoken often about wanting to reach all of his individual milestones with one team, and he realizes how rare that is in the salary-cap era. He’s seen several longtime Bolts crunched out by the cap, from Alex Killorn to Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Yanni Gourde.

Until there’s a resolution one way or another, Stamkos’ future will be the main talking point of the offseason.

“I don’t think there’s going to be much conversation; I hope not, anyway,” head coach Jon Cooper said Monday. “He belongs here. We know it, he knows it. But again, this is two seconds after a game. But he and I have grown up together, and he’s a heck of a player, But he also, I suppose, can control his own destiny. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but he feels like a Bolt for life. But only he and Julien can answer that one.”

The road became rocky before the season started. Stamkos expressed his frustration at media day in September about the lack of extension talks last offseason. BriseBois said the same day that a contract offer would not be made until the end of the season, because he first needed to see what the Lightning would become in 2023-24.

After a slow start, Stamkos put up the seventh 40-goal season of his 16-year career. His plus-minus was a career-low minus-21, but anyone who watched the Lightning closely knew that his two-way game was a highlight of a second-half surge that matched that of his teammates.

In the five-game series against the Panthers, Stamkos led the Lightning with five goals, scoring in each of the first four games. He scored the two most important goals in the do-or-die Game 4 win at Amalie Arena, opening the scoring with a power-play goal and then giving Tampa Bay a two-goal cushion midway through the third. And when the physicality ramped up in the playoffs, Stamkos consistently doled out big hits.

Stamkos’ teammates raved about his leadership, particularly during times of adversity. The Lightning have lost a lot of leaders in recent years, and Stamkos’ voice has been one of the most important and consistent.

“He was unbelievable right from Game 1 both on and off the ice,” said forward Anthony Duclair. “He just knows what to say. He knows how to get the boys going. And he’s obviously led this team to some championships in the past, but just seeing it from firsthand was unbelievable. And I’m just glad I got to play alongside him and just trying to learn from him and every single day how he comes in and prepares and just brings everybody to battle with him was unreal.”

Now, it becomes a different kind of numbers game. The Lightning have just over $10 million in cap space with only 18 players under contract for next season. They have unrestricted free agents this summer.

Some, like Group 6 free agent Mitchell Chaffee, will be easier to re-sign. Veterans like Tyler Motte could get better offers elsewhere. Trade-deadline acquisitions like Duclair and defenseman Matt Dumba were luxuries, because the only way they fit under the cap was due to Mikhail Sergachev’s long-term injury exemption.

Looking ahead, the Lightning also have to consider the future of defenseman Victor Hedman, who will enter the final season of his contract in 2024-25.

But no move this offseason will be more important than what happens with Stamkos. While BriseBois said in September that these things inevitably work out, there’s no doubt Lightning fans will wait with bated breath until that work gets done.

• • •

Sign up for the Sports Today newsletter to get daily updates on the Bucs, Rays, Lightning and college football across Florida.

Never miss out on the latest with your favorite Tampa Bay sports teams. Follow our coverage on Instagram, X and Facebook.