All along, captain Steven Stamkos maintained he wanted to re-sign with the Lightning.
Some had their doubts, especially when his contract negotiations took longer than many anticipated. It even reached two days before unrestricted free agency, allowing Stamkos to get pursued in an interview window by other teams, including his hometown Maple Leafs, who reportedly brought the Toronto mayor into a meeting Tuesday.
But, in the end, Stamkos is staying, expected to sign an eight-year deal worth $8.5 million annually, with a full-no move clause. TSN's Bob McKenzie was the first to report the story Wednesday. The Tampa Bay Times confirmed the news.
"Excited to be back for 8 more years @TBLightning !" Stamkos tweeted Wednesday night. "Here we go ...."
Stamkos, 26, had been talking with other teams through a five-day interview window. The Leafs, Red Wings, Sabres were among many teams interested. Other teams were expected to offer more than $8.5 million annually, but a Times analysis showed that with no state income taxes, the Lightning could help bridge the gap.
Plus, Stamkos has always said that he wanted to remain with the Lightning, where he's been since becoming the No. 1 overall pick in 2008. Stamkos, with 312 career goals and two Rocket Richard trophies as the league's top goal scorer, is the face of the franchise, and took pride in how far the organization has come, two wins from the Stanley Cup in 2014-15 and the Eastern Conference Final this year. He loves the city, the owner Jeff Vinik, his teammates, and has insisted he wanted to bring a Cup to Tampa Bay.
"We have some unfinished business," Stamkos said at the end of the season. "This group has been unbelievable, this city has been unbelievable to me. I can't believe it's been eight years already, time flies. The last couple years, you can finally see that light, you still haven't got to it, but it's there, it's dangling right in front of us. When you start something, you want to finish it, and i really hope that can be the case."
Now Stamkos will have that chance.
Why did it take so long? Stamkos, a very meticulous and thoughtful player, had every right to do his due diligence and see what else is out there. This would be the biggest contract of his career, and wasn't to be taken lightly.
"It's not as easy as everyone thinks it is," Stamkos said at the end of the season. "There are certain cases where it works out right away, and certain cases where it takes a little longer. Until you actually go through it and live through it and nkow both sides of the spectrum where people are coming from, there's a lot of work to be done.
"It's not something that on both sides can be taken lightly. It's a big decision for an organization, it's a big decision for a player. The more time you take, just like the decision I made to come back and play, that took a long time too. There's a lot of things you have to check off before you're comfortable in making any decision. In any decision I've ever made in my life, especially as a professional athlete, it's not one that's made quickly or just for the hell of it. There's a lot of thought that's put into it."
And once the decision was made, reaction began pouring in.
"Could not be more happy to have El Capitan back!!! I think we know who is picking up first tab of the year. #Arbys," Ryan Callahan tweeted.
Tweeted former Lightning captain, and Stamkos' linemate, Marty St. Louis: "Congrats to @RealStamkos91 for his new deal! Happy to see him stay with the bolts. #onetimer #alwaysopen."