We’re all about to find out exactly what the Tampa Bay Lightning thinks of Steven Stamkos. And we’ll find out very soon. If the Lightning doesn’t have Stamkos signed to a long-term extension by July 1 or shortly after, let the fun begin. If this somehow drags into next season, it will become the Mike Babcock Saga all over again.
Teams typically like to have their superstars signed to extensions long before it becomes an issue. That’s what the Pittsburgh Penguins have done with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and the Chicago Blackhawks with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. When Crosby signed his extension in 2012 and Malkin a year later, the deals were announced before July 1. Toews and Kane’s deals were announced July 9.
Right now everyone is saying the right things in Tampa. GM Steve Yzerman has said getting Stamkos signed to an extension is his No. 1 priority. For his part, Stamkos has said he wants nothing more than to stay in Tampa and win a championship with this group.
But let’s not forget, there was a time when the thought of Martin St-Louis not retiring in a Lightning uniform was a preposterous one. But the Lightning For Life was miffed about being passed over for the Olympic team by his own GM and forced his way out of town. The point is, it doesn’t take much and it doesn’t take long for these situations to go south.
Whatever happens, the Lightning is going to have to decide whether or not Stamkos will continue to be the face of the organization and the cornerstone of the foundation. If so, the team is going to have to offer him, at the very least, the eight-year, $84 million pacts the Blackhawks offered to Kane and Toews. Keeping in mind that the two of them would have received even more had they decided to split up and put themselves on the open market, it might even be more.
For the record, there have been no discussions between the Lightning and Stamkos on a contract extension yet. But that’s understandable, since the Lightning just finished its season. But the sooner this gets resolved, the better for everyone involved. If the Lightning truly wants Stamkos, get it done right away.
Of course, we wouldn’t be speculating about all of this if Stamkos had (a) not been the subject of an ice time issue, and/or (b) he had produced some goals with the ice time he had been given. Stamkos played just 17:17 in Game 1 despite being the best player on the ice, which was sixth among Tampa’s forwards for that game. By Games 4, 5 and 6, he was getting more ice time than any other Tampa forward, but there was still some concern around his deployment late in games. (By the way, there was nothing wrong with Cooper having Stamkos serve a bench penalty in Game 1. Stamkos doesn’t kill penalties and it makes sense to have your best non-penalty-killing forward in the box in the event you can spring him for a breakaway. Teams do it all the time.)
But we are. Both Cooper and Stamkos insist it was not an issue between them, but superstars want to be on the ice when the game is on the line. Coaches, on the other hand, feel compelled to put out the players out who give his team the best chance of winning. And any way you cut it, Cooper thought there were five players who gave his team a better chance of winning that game than Stamkos did in Game 1. In that game, Stamkos got 14:43 of even-strength ice time, just over a minute more than J.T. Brown. Stamkos' linemate Alex Killorn got 17:09, while Tyler Johnson got 16:00, Ondrej Palat 16:30, Nikita Kucherov 16:12 and Valtteri Filppula 15:28.
It’s natural that Cooper might gravitate to the players he developed in the minors and have a level of trust with them. We get that. And with some of those same players – Palat and Johnson, along with Victor Hedman and Jonathan Drouin – coming up for contract renewals in two years, the Lightning will have to find cap room for them all. And that doesn’t even include Killorn, Brown, Kucherov and Cedric Paquette, whose contracts are up next summer.
Perhaps Cooper may think he’s a good enough coach to win in Tampa without one of the most dynamic scorers in the NHL. And if that’s the case, he might be right. And two years from now, with Hedman on the horizon, which player does the Lightning see as its franchise cornerstone. The way he played in the Stanley Cup final, it certainly wouldn’t be outlandish to suggest that player may very well be Hedman, and not Stamkos.
So many questions, so little time to resolve them. One thing is certain, the quicker the Lightning deals with Stamkos one way or the other, the more likely it will be to avoid a circus.