Game 6 of the 2015 Stanley Cup Final came and went, and the boys in blue dragged themselves sadly back home. I did not go to greet the plane, but a lot of my fellow Tampa Bay Lighting fans did, watching as the boys stumbled down the stairs to the tarmac, beards as shorn as their hopes for a cup.
Everyone predicted that TBL would lose (even Steve Dangle, whose curse was somehow broken when he backed the winning team); they were the latest sacrificial lamb offered up to the Western Conference, and Tampa Bay fans had to avoid media for weeks afterward as it gloated over the team's predicted demise.
The run was glorious, though. All the more glorious because there came a point in May when we swallowed hard and realized that Tampa Bay's window for reclaiming this spot in history was brief and somewhat fragile. Our fears arose because someone asked that other Steve, Stevie Yzerman, about Stamkos's contract.
"We said in September that we'd sit down at the end of the year and get that done, and that's my intention," Yzerman said. "We've got a good team, he's our captain, and it's our intention to get him signed to a long-term deal."
Tampa Bay fans began to ponder the cap situation, and we realized with a sinking feeling that Nikita Kucherov was going to become an RFA near when Stamkos's contract came due. And Cedric Paquette, too, the unassuming yet beloved grinder-line guy who was busy shutting down Jonathan Toews in the Stanley Cup Final. And Alex Killorn, he of the amazing lacrosse-style goal on the Blackhawks in game one of the final. And Vladislav Namestnikov, part of Tampa Bay's future, Jonathan Marchessault, one of the Syracuse Crunch black aces ... I speak all of these names with great love, because it wasn't just Stamkos that got Tampa Bay to the Stanley Cup Final.
Tampa Bay's "triplets" line was really clicking, too. Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, and Ondrej Palat's line were leading the league -- Tyler Johnson scoring more playoff goals than anyone else, until he broke his wrist. Johnson and Palat were due to become RFAs in 2017, along with two "holy shit" level UFAs -- Ben Bishop and Victor Hedman, and two other "oh crap re-sign these guys ASAP" RFAs, goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy and enigmatic rookie Jonathan Drouin.
Tampa Bay's window for taking this particular truly talented team to the playoffs? One. More. Year. One more year before the shit would hit the fan, and Yzerman had to make hard decisions. Jeff Vinik is a great owner and Tampa is a team that slides in right at cap -- but given the number of people due for raises, I wondered who Yzerman would move out and who he would keep to make room for the reported $11 million plus that Stamkos is asking.
GeoFitz24, a writer for Raw Charge, feels more hopeful than I do about it. He had this to say:
I actually think the cap situation isn't going to be as bad as most might think, especially with the cap moving up potentially to $74.5 million next year. If you wanted to add it too, I think a big consideration about Stamkos is that a Stamkos deal might keep the team from doing a long term deal with Kucherov this offseason, and there could be a threat of someone trying to snipe Kucherov on a big RFA deal. Though I think the Lightning can move enough salary to make that not a problem. I think Carle gets bought out this summer.
GeoFitz24 has written about the complexities and costs of trading Stamkos, too. There are ways to keep Stamkos happy in Tampa Bay, but still, none of us thought signing Stamkos would be as easy as Yzerman claimed -- and indeed, nothing about this situation is turning out easy at all.
That's because as much as fans of Tampa Bay love Steven Stamkos, and as worn-out as the team looks this season, we can't deny that the rest of the team had a part in the playoff run too.
So after the past few seasons Stamkos has had, how might Stamkos himself be feeling about Tampa Bay and the team that's been built around him?
The summer after the 2015 cup run, Stamkos went home to a shorter off-season than usual. He spent his time doing things he loved -- for example, he caught a Toronto Blue Jays game. They were playing the Tampa Bay Rays, so of course Stamkos wore a Rays hat. (He'd just been to batting practice with the Rays, after all, one of the last things he did before leaving town.)
Some people say that the start of the Stamkos-to-Toronto rumors began when Stamkos liked a certain tweet in 2014. I'd like to say that I never took those rumors seriously -- right up until I saw Stamkos's hat change from the Rays to the Jays to support his home town team's playoff run.
My fears are probably off-base, right? Stamkos was going from one playoff run to another, and of course he'd be caught up in the joy of it. But I've never heard him sound more alive about anything than he did about game 5 of the first round of the Toronto Blue Jays playoffs.
Best game I have ever watched— Steven Stamkos (@RealStamkos91) October 14, 2015
Maybe it was the stress relief of no longer having the hopes of a whole city of fans on his shoulders any more, maybe it was the sheer joy of seeing his hometown team make the playoffs, but suddenly instead of wearing a Tampa Bay Rays hat, he was in Toronto blue.
Who could blame him? It's been a tumultuous few years for Stamkos. It's only been two seasons since Stamkos was horrifically injured while playing against the Boston Bruins, and while he was recovering, was ruled unable to join Team Canada at the Olympics. His alternate for Team Canada was Marty St. Louis, one of Stamkos's best friends and an excellent line mate (the person whose passes were undoubtedly partially responsible for two of Stamkos's Rocket Richard trophies).
Under murky circumstances, this excellent linemate left the team. Stamkos was handed captaincy in his first game back from his injury. With Marty in New York and a whole new crew of AHL call-ups hustling for minutes, how did Stamkos feel about the team? One thing is certain -- given the players that are constantly shifted on and off Stamkos' line in the past few seasons, he's definitely feeling the loss of St. Louis.
Stamkos has survived in Tampa Bay to see a new owner, a new GM, and a handful of coaches (including Jon Cooper, whose own contract was just renewed). During Tampa Bay's playoff run last season, Stamkos noted wryly that only two people from the 2011 team that lost in the Eastern Conference Final remained with the team. What loyalty might Stamkos feel to a team that has changed so dramatically from his rookie year?
Rumors are swirling, not least of which are the ones about Stamkos and Cooper being at odds with each other, especially with regard to where Stamkos plays in the lineup. Why has he been playing on wing rather than at center? Yzerman has made his trust in Cooper explicit. Does this mean he finds Stamkos more expendable?
Given all of this, where does Stamkos feel more at home? Could it be Toronto?
Given Tampa Bay's cap situation, and given the rumors that Yzerman seems increasingly unwilling to meet Stamkos's asking price, it seems likely that Stamkos will go all the way to his contract deadline again without settling things.
This is not the first time that Stamkos has ridden out his entire season without signing a renewed contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The first time was in 2011, when Stamkos became an RFA on July 1. He re-signed on July 19 for his current contract, five years for 37.5 million dollars. The buzz building up to his re-signing became the first #Stammergeddon, but this one looks to eclipse it as more term and more money are at stake. Could Stamkos and his agent be using the same tactics to wait until his contract is up, once again, to see if urgency and the threat of the open market changes Yzerman's tone?
Stamkos's twitter games are not helping Lightning fans feel any more secure, as he first liked, then unliked, a TSN article that asked whether Toronto should court him. It was apparently a slip of Stamkos’s finger -- but a telling one. What’s he been reading about lately? Oh. About signing with Toronto.
Nothing is simple in this contract situation except for one thing -- Stamkos will be playing next season, and for the term he wants. Where? Who knows.