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Tampa Bay Lightning fans have bigger worries besides Steven Stamkos' contract

It is your right to worry. It is your nature to obsess.

As a devoted fan of a hockey team that only recently awoke from a five-year nap, you have every right to be concerned about free agent comings and — mostly — goings at the St. Pete Times Forum this summer.

So gather your frustration, round up your angst, and get your nervous twitches in working order. Just try not to point any of them in the direction of Steven Stamkos.

Sure, on some level, the idea that Stamkos remains unsigned is a minor curiosity. But it is not worthy of your panic, and probably never will be. Stamkos almost certainly will be skating around in training camp before you know it.

However, the same cannot be said for Simon Gagne. Or Sean Bergenheim. Or Mike Smith, for that matter. The Stamkos soap opera may be a distraction this summer, but the departures of Gagne and Bergenheim are real hits to the Lightning offense.

In terms of sheer contracts walking out the door, only four teams have lost a more valuable collection of players than Tampa Bay this offseason.

Now this doesn't mean Steve Yzerman has had his head buried in the ice the past month. He got Eric Brewer and Dwayne Roloson re-signed, and those deals trailed only Stamkos' contract on the GM's list of summer chores. He also brought in Mathieu Garon to replace Smith as the backup goaltender and has signed a handful of other lesser names.

But if you've been waiting for the big splash, it has yet to come. And if last year is any indication, it might be several weeks before it arrives.

The Lightning has neither the resources nor the cap space, when you consider Stamkos' and Victor Hedman's next deals, to spend wildly in the free agent market.

So, like he did last summer to get Gagne, look for Yzerman to make a strategic trade in the coming weeks. He could deal a defenseman. He could deal Garon or Cedrick Desjardins, if his shoulder is healthy. He could get creative with others on the roster.

But it is clear the Lightning needs at least one, and probably two, new forwards. Because as of today, this team is not quite as good as the one that walked off the ice in Boston after Game 7 of the East final at the end of May.

That's not a suggestion that the Lightning is going backward, and it doesn't mean the roster can't be upgraded in the coming months. But if you were paying attention, you knew the Lightning had some difficult contract situations to navigate this offseason.

And, yes, that includes Stamkos. Signing a 50-goal scorer to a new deal is rarely an easy process, even if both sides agree they're better off with each other.

They can disagree on value, and they can disagree on terms, but every indication is they will eventually work this deal out.

First of all, it is rare to see a restricted free agent get an offer sheet. And it's rarer still for an elite player.

Since 1998 only a handful of offer sheets have been signed, and only two — Carolina's offer to Serge Fedorov in '98 and Edmonton's offer to Thomas Vanek in '07 — reached the level of requiring four or more first-round draft picks as compensation for a signed deal.

In those cases, Vanek and Fedorov stayed put when their teams matched the offers.

To find a deal that required that level of compensation and involved a player switching teams, you have to go back to 1997 when the Lightning briefly lost Chris Gratton after he signed Philadelphia's offer sheet.

Of course, you have to remember that in those days, the Lightning had more in common with a pawn shop than an NHL franchise.

The point is, history says Stamkos is probably not going anywhere. The combined cost in money, salary cap space, draft picks and dirty glances from other GMs in the league make most offer sheets highly unattractive to front offices.

If that's the case, why hasn't Stamkos signed?

Essentially because the music is still playing in this dance.

The threshold for the four first-round draft picks as compensation is a deal that exceeds $7.8 million annually. And that is probably one reason Yzerman's offer was supposedly in the $7.5 million range; he logically assumed no one would be thrilled about going higher than $7.8 million on an offer sheet.

Nevertheless, Stamkos and his agent figured their best chance for leverage was to hit the free agent market and find some desperate team willing to go a little higher.

If he could find that stalking horse, Stamkos wouldn't even have to sign the offer sheet. Just waving a $9 million offer around would force Tampa Bay's hand.

But that apparently has not happened yet. And so we wait.

This doesn't make Stamkos is greedy, and it doesn't make Lightning owner Jeff Vinik cheap. It makes them human.

In the end, they will come to terms, and everyone will be happy.

Because then Yzerman will have time to address the real holes.

Tampa Bay Lightning fans have bigger worries besides Steven Stamkos' contract 07/05/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 6, 2011 7:11am]
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