All along, captain Steven Stamkos maintained he wanted to re-sign with the Lightning. General manager Steve Yzerman always hoped to keep the face of his franchise. Yet there were doubts, even with Yzerman, especially with Stamkos, 26, just two days away from being the most coveted unrestricted free agent in years, available to higher bidders. "Quite honestly, I didn't know how it was going to play out," Yzerman said. "I hadn't given up hope, but I certainly wasn't expecting it to get done." That all changed Wednesday afternoon in what Yzerman dubbed a surprising phone call from Stamkos' agent, Don Meehan, from Newport Sports, breaking the biggest hockey news of the year: Stamkos was staying put, signing an eight-year, $68 million deal (with a full no-move clause throughout) with the Lightning, spurning a sweepstakes at noon Friday.
Yzerman, his team in a salary-cap crunch, credited Stamkos' willingness to "accept the contract we proposed."
"It's not often that a player gets the chance to spend his career in one organization and I am hopeful that this agreement sets me on that path with the Tampa Bay Lightning," Stamkos said in a statement. "Most importantly, I look forward to working with my teammates, coaches and our management in our pursuit of winning a Stanley Cup."
Stamkos had been talking with other teams through a five-day interview window. The Leafs, Red Wings and Sabres were among many teams interested; Stamkos' hometown Maple Leafs reportedly brought in Toronto's mayor and an executive from Canadian Tire to meet with Stamkos on Tuesday. There was speculation the Sabres would offer $11 million to $12 million a year.
"Stamkos is very loyal, he believes in the organization. He loves the city and the town," Yzerman said. "He really wants to win and that's his No. 1 priority."
Stamkos' best chance to win turned out to be Tampa Bay, where the Markham, Ontario, native has grown up since being taken No. 1 overall in the 2008 NHL draft. Stamkos has racked up 312 career goals, earned two Rocket Richard Trophies as the league's top goal scorer, and four All-Star appearances. But Stamkos' main focus has been finally hosting the Stanley Cup, getting close in reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2014-15 and Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final this season, when he triumphantly returned from a blood clot in his right collarbone.
"We have some unfinished business," Stamkos said at the end of the season. "This group has been unbelievable, this city has been unbelievable to me. . . . The last couple years, you can finally see that light, you still haven't got to it, but it's there, it's dangling right in front of us. When you start something, you want to finish it, and I really hope that can be the case."
Now Stamkos has his chance.
"Happy to see him stay with the bolts," tweeted former captain Marty St. Louis.
While this long-term deal will take Stamkos until he's 33 to 34 years old, Yzerman is confident his leading goal scorer can keep producing. Stamkos led the team with 36 goals last season, having scored 40 or more in four other seasons.
"At the age of 26, I believe a player is really entering the prime of their career," Yzerman said. "Stammer's best years are ahead of him, whether it's 30-40-50 goals, you're playing your best all-around hockey, that's what we're counting on and expecting."
Yzerman said Stamkos' choice to accept their offer could help them remain competitive and keep the "necessary pieces." Tampa Bay is in talks to sign wing Nikita Kucherov, a restricted free agent, who is due a hefty raise over the $700,000 he made last season. Forwards Alex Killorn and Vladislav Namestnikov, both restricted free agents, need to be signed. Star defenseman Victor Hedman, forwards Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat are due contracts after next season.
This Stamkos deal probably means goalie Ben Bishop, who has one year left on his contract at $5.95 million, will be traded sometime before next season's trade deadline.
But Yzerman said he's "100 percent' confident the Lightning will be under the salary cap entering next season. He has options of buying out a player like defenseman Matt Carle by today's 5 p.m. deadline, or trading another.
"All we're trying to do is be the most competitive team we can," Yzerman said. "And we're asking all our players to work with us."
Stamkos did just that, and could finish his career in Tampa Bay.
Tweeted wing Ryan Callahan: "Could not be more happy."
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.