Lightning captain Steven Stamkos had a few sleepless nights as he neared today's opening of free agency, which promised to be a sweepstakes for the All-Star center.
At odd moments, Stamkos, 26, briefly allowed himself to think about playing somewhere other than Tampa Bay as teams made their bids, including his hometown Maple Leafs.
"It was a very tough decision. It truly was," Stamkos said Thursday on a conference call. "I can't say this past week has been fun. It was pretty stressful, to be honest."
Deep down, Stamkos always wanted to stay with the Lightning, which drafted him No. 1 overall in 2008. And now, after signing an eight-year, $68 million deal to stay with Tampa Bay on Wednesday, it's his hope he can finish his career with the Lightning. Stamkos has a full no-move clause, meaning the Lightning can't send Stamkos anywhere without his consent.
"I felt in my heart that Tampa was always the place I wanted to stay," Stamkos said. "It was just following your heart and being loyal to the organization that brought me up and made me the player and person that I am today."
Stamkos — who reportedly met with the Maple Leafs, Sabres, Canadiens and an unidentified fourth team during a week-long interview period — acknowledged he likely left some money on the table to sign with Tampa Bay.
"For me, that's not what it's all about," he said.
Stamkos believes the Lightning gives him the best chance to win, and he felt comfortable with an organization that has treated him "first-class," lauding general manager Steve Yzerman and owner Jeff Vinik.
"I grew up as a kid (with the Lightning)," Stamkos said. "And this team is on the verge of hopefully competing for Stanley Cups for years to come, and (with) me being the captain and being a leader.
"I know the process took a lot longer than maybe both parties would have liked, but in every decision in life, you want to make the best decision. When I said I wanted to stay here during the year, I meant it."
Stamkos' uncertain contract situation was arguably the biggest story in the NHL last season. It was a constant subject of speculation and included reports that he had an issue with coach Jon Cooper. Stamkos said the Cooper story line was "overblown." Though no one is always going to agree with everyone, the important thing is the lines of communication remain open between him and Cooper, Stamkos said.
"If I didn't want to be in Tampa," Stamkos said, "I wouldn't be in Tampa."
In hindsight, Stamkos said, he would have rather re-signed sooner but believed that faced with the biggest decision of his professional career, he wanted to be as informed as possible about his options.
Stamkos was cognizant of the Lightning's salary cap crunch, saying it was a factor in him re-signing for potentially less than what he could have gotten on the open market. That's a strong message to send for the Lightning, especially with restricted free agent forward Nikita Kucherov needing a new deal this summer, and defenseman Victor Hedman eligible to be an unrestricted free agent after next season, and forwards Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat restricted free agents.
Yzerman said Stamkos' willingness to sign for an $8.5 million annual cap hit will help the Lightning remain competitive.
"We realize the potential we have," Stamkos said, "and know if we ultimately want to stay together, there's going to be sacrifices for both sides. I believe the core we have understands that."
Stamkos declined to get into specifics about what teams courted him or their pitches, maintaining the privacy his agents at Newport Sports and Yzerman used all season for the negotiations, a tactic that kept everyone guessing about their status.
"Nobody really had a clue the whole time," Stamkos said.
Even his teammates were left in suspense. Veteran center Brian Boyle found out that Stamkos re-signed Wednesday afternoon while on a golf course in Hingham, Mass. He said it sparked spirited group text messaging with other Lightning players
"He's a superstar. Of course we were nervous to lose him," Boyle said by phone Thursday. "We love our team, what we've built. He's the main reason for that.
"He obviously left some money on the table. That's a remarkable thing. What he's done for Tampa the past eight years and continues to do, it's just great news for the whole city and for us as teammates. We're thrilled."
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.