Has anyone noticed that in 10 days, the Tampa Bay Lightning will visit the Toronto Maple Leafs? But they have caught a break. They play the night before in Columbus and will not arrive in Toronto until the wee hours of the morning, which will likely cancel their morning skate in Toronto. That means Steven Stamkos will not have to face a horde or media wondering why he hasn’t signed a long-term deal with the Lightning yet and asking whether he’ll sign in Toronto this summer.
But unless Stamkos signs an extension with the Lightning between now and then, which he almost certainly won’t, he’d better be prepared for the onslaught after the game. When I last saw Stamkos early in the season in Buffalo and brought up that scenario to him, he said, “Yeah, that’s a little later. There’s still lots of time between then and now and there are still lots of things that can happen.”
Well, here we are and nothing, absolutely nothing, has happened. Both the Lightning and Stamkos’ representatives have been tight-lipped about negotiations, but we do know there have been no substantive talks between the two sides and the Lightning have not put any form of offer toward Stamkos. Which seems a little odd, but not unprecedented. Anze Kopitar isn’t signed in Los Angeles, either. (And that's not to say Stamkos would sign with Toronto even if he reaches free agency. There are a bunch of other teams that would make a serious pitch for him.)
We mention this because the Lightning did find the time to extend coach Jon Cooper’s contract, something that has been in the works for a couple of months now. Despite the Lightning’s struggles this season after advancing to the Stanley Cup final last year, Cooper is an excellent NHL coach with a keen mind for the game and a demeanor that is well suited to dealing with the ups and downs of coaching. To be sure, coming to an agreement on a three-year deal with Cooper would be much easier than maneuvering your way through an eight-year extension for the franchise player.
But what does it say that the Lightning made a priority of getting its coach signed before Stamkos? Nobody really has any idea how well Stamkos and Cooper get along with the exception of the people who are closest to them. For all we know, they’re a modern-day Amos and Andy. To be sure, neither one of them has ever uttered a word to suggest their relationship isn’t a good one.
But there’s always been that nagging feeling that since Stamkos was not a player brought along by Cooper, that perhaps he might not have as much faith in Stamkos as he might in others. That came to a head when Cooper played Stamkos just 17:17 in the first game of the Stanley Cup final and was questioned for doing so. When asked about that, it marked the first and only time Cooper seemed to lose his patience in a media scrum.
What does that tell us? Well, we do know that in the first game of the series, when the Lightning needed a goal in the third period, Cooper did not turn to Stamkos. We also know that in that game that Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, Valtteri Filppula and Nikita Kucherov played more than Stamkos did. In Game 2, Stamkos was second in ice time among forwards only to Filppula, led all forwards in ice time in Games 3, 4 and 5 and was third to Killorn and Filppula in Game 6.
This season, Stamkos is playing 19:31 per game, more than a minute more per game than the next highest forward on the team. And he has been reasonably productive by his standards with 11 goals and 19 points in 26 games. That puts him tied for 14th in the league in goals and tied for 49th in points.
There are any number of factors that go into a contract negotiation – money, term, role on the team, city, teammates, coaching staff – and Stamkos is still recognized as one of the top players in the world. He also has an opportunity to be an unrestricted free agent at a very young age. It will not be an easy deal to make, particularly with Kucherov and Killorn set become restricted free agents this summer. They’ll be joined by Johnson and Jonathan Drouin as restricted free agents in the summer of 2017, the same summer Victor Hedman and Ben Bishop are set to hit unrestricted free agency. And nobody seems to have any confidence the salary cap will rise substantially for next season.
And then there’s Jon Cooper. The Lightning has made it clear that he is their man behind the bench. We’re still waiting to see if Stamkos will be taking direction from him beyond this season, or even the trade deadline if the Lightning decide they can’t afford to keep him.