TAMPA — Captain Steven Stamkos sounds genuine in saying he's excited for Tampa to host the 2018 All-Star Game in January.
Stamkos, 27, grew up in the city after arriving as an 18-year-old No. 1 overall draft pick by the Lightning in 2008. He believes this event has been a "long time coming" for a franchise that has done a 180-degree turn since owner Jeff Vinik took over in 2010.
But it's still hard for Stamkos to hide the disappointment of what the game signals: that the NHL won't be participating in the 2018 Olympics in South Korea.
Stamkos hasn't competed for Canada in an Olympics and may never get that chance unless owners have a change of heart for 2022.
"It's a little bittersweet," Stamkos said. "If there's the Olympics, then the (All-Star Game) doesn't come to Tampa, so it's a double-edged sword. If it comes to the point where there's no Olympics, I couldn't think of a better place to host the game. We've proven the hockey market that we are, how great we are. I think it'd be a great time."
So here we have Vinik in the middle. It makes sense for him to prefer hosting an All-Star Game to shutting his business down for three weeks for the Olympics (as the NHL has done for the past five Games) and having his best players (and biggest investments) risking injury overseas. But the faces of Vinik's franchise, from Stamkos to Victor Hedman, have strongly voiced their disappointment in the Olympics decision.
Hedman and fellow Swede Anton Stralman experienced the joy of winning gold at the World Championship last month, but neither has played in the Olympics. Stralman said the league "crushed a dream," caring mostly about money.
"It's a few billionaires trying to make an extra buck," Stralman said.
(And with Vinik's Marriott Waterside charging $599 a night for rooms All-Star weekend, plenty of bucks will be made.)
So I asked Vinik, what's your message to your players?
"I'm empathetic towards the players. I understand their points of view," he said. "But I also understand the point of view of the owners and commissioner that we are shutting down our season for three weeks. No other professional sports league does that. It's a strong belief of the owners that it doesn't make sense."
That won't make it easier for even Vinik's All-Stars to take.
SLAP SHOTS: GM Steve Yzerman said he's had talks with the camps of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin, who can be restricted free agents July 1, and remains confident he can sign all three. … Yzerman said he made a contract offer to forward prospect Boko Imama before dealing his rights to the Kings on Wednesday for a conditional seventh-round pick in 2018. The condition was met when Imama, a 2015 sixth-round pick, signed with the Kings the next day. … The Lightning liked what it has seen from D Darren Raddysh (junior Ontario Leagues's Erie Otters), and it wouldn't be surprising if it is one of the teams interested in the unrestricted free agent. Raddysh's brother, Taylor, is a Lightning forward prospect.
EXPANSION TALK: Yzerman hasn't finalized his protection list for the June 21 expansion draft, but he has a pretty good idea of who will be protected: "If I had to do it today, I could," he said. Expansion Vegas GM George McPhee told Canada's TSN TV network he may have a few deals to announce this week. Though some teams are expected to make side deals with Vegas to have control over what player they lose in expansion, Yzerman said he wasn't sure if Tampa Bay could pull one off. … Two TSN writers did a mock expansion draft, and both had LW Alex Killorn the player the Lightning would lose. … Yzerman declined to say whether he has, or will, ask RW Ryan Callahan to waive his no-move clause for the expansion draft, which would allow another forward to be protected.
OUTDOOR GAME? The Lightning isn't stopping at hosting the 2018 All-Star Game. It is pushing to host an outdoor game and a draft in future years. Commissioner Gary Bettman said the league will consider Tampa for an outdoor game. "We believe there is a viable option in Tampa," NHL executive VP Steve Mayer said.
MISC.: The team said its season ticket sales are up to 14,500, a huge jump from the 4,000 when Vinik took over in 2010. … The Lightning said it broke even this season even with no playoff games.
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.