BUFFALO – Going into the off-season, it was the deal that had to get done. But not only is a contract extension for Steven Stamkos not signed, there’s nothing to suggest that it will happen anytime soon. The two sides have met briefly, but there have been no numbers exchanged, no offers made, no meetings scheduled.
In fact, there’s a chance the Tampa Bay Lightning will get coach Jon Cooper signed to a contract extension before Stamkos. It’s believed that Lightning GM Steve Yzerman has been negotiating with Cooper on a contract extension that could be announced fairly soon.
No such case with Stamkos, who enters the season in the final year of his deal, with all sorts of speculation following him. But it has been business as usual for Stamkos, who scored his first goal of the season in Tampa Bay’s 4-1 over the Buffalo Sabres Saturday afternoon. Stamkos has been a bit of a slow starter the past couple of seasons, so to have him find the back of the net in Game 2 will help ease speculation that the possibility of contract negotiations might be affecting his game.
“I look at it from Stammer’s perspective and I ask, ‘Is it in his head?’ ” Cooper said. “I don’t know, but he hasn’t played like it’s been in his head. Our team hasn’t played like it’s been in our heads.”
It would be naïve to think that Stamkos’ contract situation isn’t on his mind and that he’s been able to shut it out entirely. Certainly, Stamkos has looked around the league and noticed that stars of his ilk are getting signed to extensions far earlier in the process. And faced with such a huge life situation, it has to creep in on occasion. But professional athletes have an uncanny ability to compartmentalize these sorts of things and not let them affect their performance. That’s part of the reason why they’re playing their sport and making millions of dollars doing so, while others are toiling in obscurity.
“With the exception of talking about it in the media, it doesn’t creep into my mind at all,” Stamkos said. “Right from training camp, it hasn’t affected the way I’ve prepared for this season. My teammates know what they’re going to get from me every night. I’ll let my play do the talking and so far I haven’t worried about it.”
You do not get to be a player of Stamkos’ stature without being mentally strong and there’s little to suggest in the early going that it has been a factor. That could change, of course, if we get deep into the season and there’s still no deal in place. It’s fair to say that the Lightning’s visit to Toronto Dec. 15 would be something of a gong show if Stamkos still has not signed a deal. Maple Leaf fans seem to believe that every star who goes to unrestricted free agency is going to sign with their team, even though history tells us that almost never happens. But that has done nothing to staunch the hopes that Stamkos will return for a glorious homecoming. If he does, he’d better be prepared to play for a team that’s a lot, lot worse than the one he’s currently on, and one that will face a building phase he’s already endured with the Lightning.
“Coming in this year, I thought I had a great summer,” Stamkos said. “I’m so excited about this group being back together. With the relationship Steve Yzerman has with my agent (Don Meehan) and myself, things are being kept internally and I think that eases the distraction, if some people want to call it that. But in the room, with me, with the coaching staff, no one is even talking about it and it’s working so far.”
When asked point-blank what the odds would be of him signing an extension, Stamkos begged off. But this is clearly a chapter that is not even close to being written yet. The longer it drags on, however, the more likely it is to become Mike Babcock 2.0.
“He’s a human so is it going to affect him? Maybe it will,” Cooper said. “But he hasn’t shown any signs of it.”