There was a Steven Stamkos sighting the other night.
The Lightning captain and leading goal scorer was milling around the locker room after the team's series-ending Game 5 victory against the Red Wings.
That could be the closest Stamkos gets to the ice again this season.
Not that anyone has forgotten about Stamkos, who has been out since April 2 with a blood clot. But the Lightning knows that if it's going to win the Stanley Cup this year, it might have to do it without Stamkos. He hasn't been ruled out for the rest of the playoffs, but there's a good chance he won't return.
That leads us to a question on everyone's mind: Has Stamkos, who can become a free agent this summer, played his last game in a Lightning uniform?
And that leads us to this:
How does this Lightning playoff run impact whether Stamkos returns?
With a few days off before the start of the second round of the playoffs against the Islanders, that has become the hot topic.
It's a complicated question. But the answer is not.
It's unlikely the Lightning postseason run will have anything to do with whether Stamkos returns next season.
These playoffs are not a sneak preview of life without Stamkos. It would be misleading to quantify Stamkos' value based on a dozen or two games against, at most, four opponents.
Yet there are those who want to attach Stamkos' future to how far the Lightning goes this spring.
If it wins the Cup without Stamkos, it doesn't need him, right? Let him walk.
But what if it comes up just short? Or what if the Lightning is knocked out in this round by the Islanders because it doesn't score enough goals? It would have to sign Stamkos immediately, right?
Then there's the Stamkos side. Might his decision hinge on how close (or how far) the Lightning comes to a Cup without him?
Let's start with what we know.
The Lightning is a much better team with Stamkos than it is without him.
His 36 goals were tied for seventh in the NHL this season, and he might be the best pure goal scorer not named Alex Ovechkin. Proven scorers like Stamkos, only 26 years old, don't come along every day. If he leaves, he takes his goals with him.
The Lightning knows this. One postseason run — no matter how short or long — isn't going to convince Tampa Bay otherwise. The Lightning absolutely wants to re-sign Stamkos. General manager Steve Yzerman has said so repeatedly.
However, because of the salary cap and other players who need to be signed in the coming years, there comes a point where Stamkos simply will cost too much.
And this is the crux of matter.
It's not about playoff runs. It's not about winning a Stanley Cup. It's not about whether the Lightning can survive this series against the Islanders.
This is pretty much about one thing:
Stamkos wants a certain amount. The Lighting is willing to pay Stamkos a certain amount. It's an easy math problem.
If what Stamkos wants is greater than what the Lightning is willing to pay, he likely will walk. If what Stamkos wants fits into the Lightning budget, then he will stay.
Simple as that.
Playing for a winner might be on Stamkos' wish list, but my guess is it's not at the top of the list, and it's not as if the Lightning would be the only good team interested in his services.
But could what happens in the playoffs tug on the emotional strings of Stamkos and the Lightning?
That's possible, I suppose, but only for a few emotional moments immediately after the season ends — whenever that is.
If Stamkos can't return from his health issues this season and the Lightning, say, loses the Cup final by a measly goal, how could Tampa Bay not wonder if Stamkos would have made a difference? The initial pull to dump a pile of money in Stamkos' lap would be overwhelming.
By the same token, if the Lightning wins the Stanley Cup, the instinct would be to save all that money for players such as Victor Hedman, Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and goalie Ben Bishop, and let Stamkos leave.
And yes, Stamkos wants to win a Cup with his buddies, and missing out on this chance surely is eating him up.
Yzerman, however, is smart enough to know that the playoffs can be a crapshoot. A hot goalie, a bad game, an injury can tip the balance of a series. To base your roster on a best-of-seven series would not only be shortsighted, but completely irresponsible.
Last year's Lightning nearly won the Stanley Cup. It also was nearly knocked out in the first round. That's how precarious the playoffs can be.
Yzerman cannot and will not make such an important decision about the future based on a goal here or a game there.
Neither will Stamkos. He is not going to leave the rest of his career — maybe 10 years or so and millions upon millions of dollars — up to how the Lightning fares against the Islanders in the next 10 days.
We are going to have an answer soon. Sometime around July 1.
Between now and then, Stamkos might play again, or he might not. The Lighting might win the Cup, or it might not.
But whatever happens between now and July 1 isn't going to have an impact on Stamkos' future.
And it shouldn't.