Star center Steven Stamkos knew all along he'd be staying with the Lightning and said his new long-term deal — a five-year, $37.5 million pact officially announced Tuesday — was pretty much wrapped up a couple of weeks ago.
But considering Stamkos, 21, is in his hockey-crazed hometown of Toronto for the summer, it was tough not to tune out all the wild, unfounded rumors spreading of the restricted free agent landing somewhere else. Stamkos, one of the game's top players, said he laughed out loud at the craziest, a text message from a friend who had a digitally enhanced photo of Stamkos' face on the body of Toronto center Phil Kessel, asking if he was signing with the Leafs.
"It was comical at first, got a little annoying towards the end," Stamkos said of the rumors. "For me, it was about trying to get a deal done in Tampa. Because ultimately, that was where I wanted to stay. I never thought about looking anywhere else."
That's why, even though Stamkos and general manager Steve Yzerman acknowledged that negotiations took longer than people expected, the All-Star said he "never lost sleep over it." And Yzerman never doubted he'd be able to pencil in Stamkos into his lineup this fall.
The Lightning locked up its franchise player at a cap hit of $7.5 million a season, with the contract breaking down to $8 million in each of the first four years and $5.5 million the final season, when he has a no-move clause kick in.
Stamkos, who has led the league with 96 goals the past two seasons and helped take Tampa Bay to within one game of the Stanley Cup final this past season, said the five years was comfortable for both sides. And he gladly traded in his first year of unrestricted free agency for several chances to hoist the Stanley Cup.
"It keeps you motivated and keeps you wanting more," Stamkos said.
He wasn't aware of any offer sheets from other teams since free agency started July 1, and agent Mark Guy said that "wasn't something ever explored." Yzerman said the Lightning was prepared in case it did happen, knowing how "extremely important" Stamkos was as "part of the foundation of the franchise."
Yzerman said that while Stamkos is humble and respectful, he's also competitive, and the fact that he asserted himself and brought out the best of himself in the team's biggest games — regular season and playoffs — impressed him the most.
Stamkos racked up 45 goals and 91 points last season but said he learned a lot about himself in the postseason, when he improved other areas of his game and played through pain, having taken a slap shot off the face in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final.
"Let's all keep in mind he's only 21, has played three years in the league," Yzerman said. "And the best years are in front of him."
Count captain Vinny Lecavalier as another one excited by the news.
"It's great for the team, the organization and the city of Tampa," Lecavalier wrote in a text message. "Now everybody can get focused for training camp."
The Lightning now has just more than $20 million combined dedicated in cap space this season for Stamkos, Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis. Yzerman said it's his philosophy that, with very good players, "you do your best to hold onto them because they're so difficult to replace."
That also means, with the team's financial structure, the Lightning will have to look for value in other areas. "We don't have the luxury of having a third line of players making $2 (million) to $3 million dollars," Yzerman said.
With a roster pretty much set, other than wing Teddy Purcell's arbitration hearing set for today, and money allocated to re-sign key players such as defenseman Eric Brewer and goalie Dwayne Roloson, it'll be up to the current young players and veterans to elevate their play for another playoff run.
That includes Stamkos, who thanked Yzerman and owner Jeff Vinik on Tuesday for the transformation of the franchise and made a significant commitment to taking the team a step further.
Stamkos said, like in the Red Wings model, the Lightning's great players "can probably make a lot more money somewhere else," but they really like the team they have.
"That's the feeling we have in Tampa," Stamkos said. "Maybe Year 1 … (and) the success we had, we can build with the core bunch of players for a long time and, hopefully, win a Stanley Cup one day."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com