TAMPA — Captain Steven Stamkos wants to make one thing clear:
The star center, in the final year of his contract, wants to stay with the Lightning long term and believes an extension can be worked out. Stamkos, 25, denies any rift with coach Jon Cooper and said his representatives at Newport Sports and the Lightning are "definitely still talking."
"Like I've always said, I envision myself winning a championship here and want to do that," Stamkos told the Tampa Bay Times on Saturday. "Obviously (we) got close last year, and I'm the captain of this team, and I want to be that leader."
There have been reports that Stamkos is likely to leave. Well-respected reporter Bob McKenzie of Canada's TSN sports TV network wrote Wednesday that was his "feeling," and he is not alone. Many in the hockey world sense that Stamkos has already decided he's as good as gone when he can become an unrestricted free agent July 1, if not before.
Stamkos said he "absolutely not" has decided that. "Not even close. That's why people say, 'I've got a feeling. I think, speculate.' There's so much information out there that's probably false. Like the ones about my parents moving to Tampa (which Stamkos said is not true). That just comes with the territory."
Stamkos understands why Lightning fans are concerned. After all, Stamkos said at last season's All-Star Game in January that the plan was to sign a long-term deal with Tampa Bay in July, when he would have been one year from free agency. General manager Steve Yzerman said in June that his "No. 1 priority" over the summer was to get a long-term deal done.
Yet, here we are, nearing Christmas, and there's no extension.
"That was obviously the hope," Stamkos said. "But there has been a lot of situations in the past where guys have signed later in the season. … Even (Kings star center Anze) Kopitar is going through it this year. It's not the first time someone in my position has been unsigned at this point in the season. Obviously we'll see what happens."
The Ducks' Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry signed extensions in March 2013, just a few months away from unrestricted free agency. Perry shares Stamkos' agent, Don Meehan.
"It's been an open conversation," Stamkos said of negotiations. "We're allowed to talk. It's not like we said we're not going to do anything during the season."
Stamkos also called false the speculation that one reason for the contract holdup is a rift with Cooper. Hockey Night in Canada commentator Don Cherry suggested it in June, referring to Cooper moving Stamkos to right wing in the playoffs. The rumor picked up steam after Cooper got his contract extension this month and Stamkos was moved back to wing for four games. Toronto's Globe and Mail reported last week that Stamkos is likely to bolt in free agency because of his issues with Cooper.
"There's been so many different articles written about 'Coop' and I," he said. "How do they know what's going on in the room? A lot of it is speculation. A lot of it is a story that needs something to make it seem legit, there needs to be a reason (he still doesn't have an extension). Why no one has had any concrete stuff is because there hasn't been anything to talk about.
"I think obviously the people who know me and are close to the situation know what's true and what's not true."
There is no guarantee a deal gets done. Stamkos won't get into specifics about the negotiations or offers, per the policy his agents and Yzerman have agreed to. It's unclear what Stamkos' asking price would be, though he likely would warrant at least $10 million a year on the free agent market.
There's also a question about whether Tampa Bay, with its salary cap situation, can afford to pay Stamkos and keep its core together. There will continue to be more questions as the Feb. 29 trade deadline approaches, with Stamkos holding a no-move clause. If the sides can't reach a deal, would Stamkos waive his clause?
"When we cross that bridge, we'll go over it then," Stamkos said. "There's still a lot of time before then. A lot of things can happen."
Stamkos is focusing on his game and his team, which is out of a playoff position heading into tonight's game against the Senators. Stamkos, who has 12 goals in 33 games, said his play hasn't been "up to the standards that I want" and "there's no excuse." But he was encouraged by how he snapped a 10-game goal drought in Friday's 5-3 loss to the Capitals and had 13 shot attempts (five on goal). Stamkos said it was one of his best games in a while.
"When you go through a stretch like this, you forget to have fun out there," he said. "For me, when I'm having fun, I'm playing with confidence, I'm skating and shooting the puck. For whatever reason, I got away from that in that stretch. (Friday) was a night where I had that mentality."
Stamkos said his contract situation has magnified his struggles, and though he insists it hasn't been a distraction to him or his teammates, he can't deny it has been a factor.
"I don't think it's humanly possible to completely shut it out." Stamkos said. "Whether it has an effect on me, I don't know. I've never been through that before. It's obviously on your mind a little bit."
Contact Joe Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.