This is a first. Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman put out a statement on Monday announcing something that is not going to happen.
He said he will not trade captain Steven Stamkos before the Feb. 29 NHL trade deadline.
What does that mean, exactly? There are several theories, but this much is clear:
Stamkos and the Lightning are nowhere close to a new deal. If they were, they would simply cross the remaining T's and dot the leftover I's and wrap up this mess instead of announcing that something will not happen two weeks from now.
Why worry about trade rumors if they were on the brink of a new deal?
But, back to this statement on Monday.
Here's what it feels like: It feels like Yzerman is putting out a fire started by Stamkos and Stamkos' agent, Don Meehan. It sounds like Yzerman is trying to take heat off Stamkos. It sounds like Yzerman is the general manager of a team fighting for its playoff life and the last thing he wants is his captain and best player spending half his time bombarded with questions and texts asking him about dollars and cents instead of goals and assists.
This is Yzerman trying to save the Lightning season.
The negotiations with Stamkos were never going to be easy. Both sides knew that. Right from the outset, the parties decided to not negotiate in the media. That has worked out for the most part, though Stamkos is asked almost daily about his status. The 26-year-old has handled himself well. He has been polite. He has said all the right things without really saying anything at all.
Yzerman and Meehan don't have the daily media requirements that Stamkos does, but both stayed mum throughout.
That changed last week.
Meehan went on a radio show in Canada and artfully dodged a number of questions about Stamkos. But then he was asked if the trade deadline held any kind of meaning in the negotiations. Meehan hesitated and might have thought he was giving a vague answer, but he said, "That's a sensitive issue. It's a self-evident issue.''
Huh? What does that even mean? That certainly raised eyebrows.
A short time later, Stamkos, too, might have thought he wasn't saying anything of substance when he said, "The trade deadline is coming up in a couple weeks. I'm sure everyone will have some answers in a couple weeks when that comes. … Whatever happens in the next couple weeks, there's obviously going to be some answers."
So you take what Meehan said and marry it with what Stamkos said and, suddenly, a spark had turned into a wildfire of speculation that the Lightning might actually trade Stamkos. And though Stamkos has a no-trade clause in his contract, the only way for this trade speculation to end is for Yzerman to come out and tell the world that Stamkos isn't going anywhere.
This is Yzerman removing a distraction. For him. His team. His best player. And his best player's agent.
This strange Lightning season is getting weirder by the hour. Tampa Bay is barely hanging on to a playoff spot. It has lost three of four. Once again, it can't score and Stamkos, having a down season, is in the midst of another slump with two goals in the past 14 games.
Yzerman is doing everything he can to help will the Lightning into the postseason and the first order of business is to take pressure off Stamkos. Yzerman's announcement Monday resets the Lightning season and lets everyone know that the top priority is to get into the playoffs and win the Stanley Cup this year.
Yzerman also said in his statement that it remains his goal to re-sign Stamkos and there's no reason to doubt that. But signing Stamkos can wait. Climbing out of this latest funk cannot wait. The Lightning needs to win hockey games. Right now.
Still, this Stamkos stuff is not a good thing. This is just the latest episode in a soap opera that feels like it will end with Stamkos playing somewhere else. As each day passes, the chances of Stamkos leaving increase. Every day, he is one day closer to July 1, the day when he can become a free agent. Every day, he is one day closer to seeing what else is out there.
Here's something else to think about: Is it wise for Yzerman to announce that Stamkos won't be traded? If there is a fear Stamkos might leave after the season, doesn't Yzerman owe it to the organization to, at least, explore the idea of dealing Stamkos?
Assuming Stamkos would even agree to be traded, it's hard to imagine Yzerman would get decent offers for a player who will hit the free-agent market after the season. Yzerman clearly already has decided that the only two options worth exploring are signing Stamkos or having extra cap space to play with if Stamkos were to leave.
We have no idea where Stamkos is going to play next year. But, thanks to Monday's statement, we do know where he is playing next month.
For now, that's the only promise Yzerman can make.