Steven Stamkos actually saw himself in a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater.
However, it wasn’t because he had any intention of signing an offer sheet with his hometown team as contract talks dragged on with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“I actually got a couple texts from friends with a picture of my face Photoshopped on a Toronto Maple Leafs (sweater),” Stamkos said Tuesday night on a conference call. “I think it was Phil Kessel’s body when he got signed to Toronto and it had my face and name and number on the back of a Leafs jersey.
“Some people thought it was actually a legit photo.”
Stamkos was all-too-happy to put an end to the constant speculation and rumours about his future by signing a US$37.5-million, five-year extension with the Lightning on Tuesday.
Many believed the 21-year-old was a prime target for an offer sheet after he became a restricted free agent on July 1. Even though players of his calibre rarely, if ever, become available in free agency, the young star indicated he wasn’t pursued by another team.
“No, not to my knowledge,” said Stamkos. “For the most part it was just trying to get a deal done with Tampa.”
The contract negotiations with Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman started all the way back in the fall—a process that dragged on longer than both sides had hoped.
Yzerman wasn’t too concerned about a rival trying to sign his top goal-scorer because he had the ability to make a final decision by either matching an offer or accepting four first-round draft picks as compensation.
“We were prepared to deal with that,” said Yzerman. “We have the right to match an offer sheet. As long as we have the right to match it, we know we’re not losing the player. We weren’t able to come to an agreement prior to July 1 and it took beyond that.”
Even though Stamkos scored a major raise coming out of his entry-level deal, the $7.5-million annual cap hit he’ll carry is less than Alex Ovechkin ($9.53 million per year), Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin ($8.7 million each) received in their second NHL contracts.
Stamkos will receive $8 million each of the next four seasons—tying him for ninth overall in the league next year—before earning $5.5 million in 2015-16.
While going through negotiations, he wasn’t concerned about where his new deal would leave him compared to other top players.
“I don’t think it was the end-all and be-all factor,” said Stamkos. “To be honest, I didn’t even really know where that number put me with regards to in the league. …
“At the end of the day, you have to look after yourself from a players’ perspective but at the same time you have to realize what that number does from a team perspective.”
In fact, Stamkos isn’t even the highest-paid player on the Lightning. Teammate Vincent Lecavalier will take home $11 million next season as part of an 11-year megadeal that carries an annual cap hit of $7.72 million.
There wasn’t much appetite to try and sign Stamkos to one of the extended deals that have been in vogue for young stars since the lockout.
“We considered various lengths of contracts,” said Yzerman. “We feel five years is a long time and a lot of things can change over the course of a five-year period. It just seemed like a comfortable number, we do get one year of unrestricted free agency.”
Added Stamkos: “With the (NHL’s collective bargaining agreement) going to expire at the end of next year … you never know what the outcome can be. If you’re tied down in a long-term deal, you never know what you’re getting yourself in to.”
Stamkos has been everything the Lightning had hoped for and more since they selected him first overall in 2008.
Over the past two seasons, he has scored a league-leading 96 goals. Stamkos had 51 of those in 2009-10, when he shared the Rocket Richard Trophy with Crosby.
In 243 career NHL games, he has 119 goals and 232 points.
No wonder he was the subject of endless speculation as time wore on and he still didn’t have a new contract. Stamkos is spending his summer back in Toronto and was unable to ignore all of the talk from media and fans.
“It was comical at first, it got a little annoying towards the end,” he said. “It’s something that I guess comes with the territory. People need something to talk about, especially when free agency was over and done with.”
Life can now proceed as usual. He’ll be back in Lightning colours in the fall and has no plans of even rewarding himself with a new purchase.
“I pretty much have everything I need right now,” said Stamkos. “Just maybe go out for a nice family dinner tonight and celebrate.”