TAMPA — It's now officially a distraction.
For the past several months, all Lightning fans have heard is that the potential impending free agency of Lightning star Steven Stamkos is not an issue.
The Lightning has said so. Stamkos has said so. No big deal, they say. Nothing to see here. Move along. All a media creation.
It is a story. A big story. And it will continue to be a big story until Stamkos is either re-signed, traded or leaves for free agency.
After all, only the future of the Lightning organization depends on it.
The guy is one of the best hockey players in the world. What he orders for lunch is a news.
Just look at how this latest chapter turned until a hailstorm over one slip of the finger. TSN, Canada's version of ESPN, sent out a provocative tweet Wednesday asking if the Maple Leafs should go after Stamkos. The Toronto-native Stamkos "liked" the tweet and the hockey world went crazy.
Stamkos said it was all an accident as he spoke to what would qualify as a media swarm, including a camera from TSN, after Thursday's morning skate.
"Probably doesn't look great," Stamkos said. "But I'm telling you guys it was an accident, and that's the last time I'm going to answer questions about Twitter."
This is not the first time Stamkos' twitchy fingers "liked" a tweet that had something to do with free agency. We'll give him the benefit of the doubt on this one. He said it was an accident, and he always has been a stand-up guy.
This also is not the first time Stamkos has had to deal with questions about his contract. It certainly will not be the last. But, when I had a chance to speak to him privately for a few moments Thursday, it was the first time he seemed weary and a tad annoyed by contract talk.
Steven, do you understand why this Twitter thing became a story?
"That's going to be a story, absolutely," he said. "I have to be a little more careful. People make mistakes. Obviously, I didn't intend for it to blow up."
But you get why people jumped all over it, right?
"I completely understand," Stamkos said. "I know exactly what happened, and I know the people (his teammates) in this room that know me and care about me know exactly what went on."
But you know this story and stories like it will linger as long as you're unsigned, don't you?
"I hope not; I hope people can see what went on and move on," Stamkos said. "I understand what can be a story. But if you're writing stories about Twitter … hopefully there are better things to write about in the future."
But here's the thing: It's not about Twitter. This isn't about liking tweets. This has nothing to do with taking batting practice with the Toronto Blue Jays last summer or wearing a Rays hat or anything that diehard fans want to believe is some hidden clue to suggest which way he is leaning.
It's that he is the best player on the team, a superstar, and the Lightning has no clue how much longer he is going to be here. It certainly hasn't helped that the Lightning has gotten off to rocky start in its defense of the Eastern Conference, mostly because it can't score goals.
Everybody in town is on edge, and it's only going get worse. You can also count on plenty of buzz coming out of Toronto, just for fun.
"When we are working on our 5-on-3 (power play), it's not (Tyler Johnson) turning to Stammer and saying, 'What's up with your contract? Let's talk about that right now.' " Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "That never goes on. Whatever happens outside and in the media, that's for you guys to assume or speculate. But with our team and inside our locker room, it has no effect."
That's hard to believe.
Granted, Stamkos isn't thinking about his contract when he's loading up a one-timer or taking a faceoff. But you're telling me that no one with the Lightning is wondering what's going to happen? You're telling me that Stamkos isn't wondering what his future holds? Where he will live? Where he will play?
Stamkos is having a good year. Not great. Just good. Is that because of his contract? Maybe. Maybe not. Who's to say?
This is in no way to suggest that Stamkos needs to sign an extension with the Lightning. He is free to do what he wants. He has every right to wait this thing out and become a free agent in July.
Maybe he wants to stay here. Maybe he wants to go back home to Toronto. Maybe he wants to live in New York or Boston or Southern California. Maybe he simply wants to go where he can make the most money. Whatever is most important to him is his business, and no one has the right to tell him what his priorities or desires should be.
Maybe he wants to stay but the Lightning isn't offering fair market value.
But the temperature on this simmering story will only get hotter as the season goes on and he isn't signed. That's something that Stamkos and the Lightning need to realize and accept.
Like it or not.