TAMPA — Steven Stamkos was as good as gone.
There was a blockbuster deal set up with the Sabres after the NHL draft. Another one had the Lightning captain potentially heading to Calgary. But Stamkos wouldn't waive his no-move clause.
"You heard that?" Stamkos asked. "I've heard those same rumors."
Were they true? Of course not, Stamkos said, adding that he never even has been asked by the Lightning to waive his no-move clause, which kicked in after this year's draft for the final year of his contract. But such speculation is part of the Stamkos silly season that will continue until the day the 25-year-old superstar center signs a contract extension with the Lightning — or moves on.
"You can't control what people say," Stamkos said. "Sometimes it's tough when you hear it. Things are so completely fabricated and not even close to the truth. But I think at the end of the day, you realize that obviously a lot of people don't know the situation because they're not part of it. They've got to make a story to get ratings for their show or get reads on their blogs. You can't control it. So I've learned over time not to worry about it."
It's hard to pinpoint how close, or far apart, Stamkos and the Lightning are in negotiations because the people who are part of it aren't discussing them publicly. General manager Steve Yzerman and Stamkos' agents at Newport Sports have declined to comment on the talks. Stamkos is accommodating and polite when asked, but also measured, among the many qualities that make him a perfect face of the franchise.
Stamkos said the sides will continue to work on a deal "when the time is right" and there's no deadline to cut off negotiations, even after the season opener Thursday. Stamkos realizes the Lightning could be in a salary cap bind in coming years.
"I totally understand it," Stamkos said. "And obviously that's why it's a process."
That no deal is done even after Yzerman dubbed it his "No. 1 priority" for the summer at least adds to the intrigue. But Stamkos, who came to Tampa at age 18 after becoming the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2008, makes two things clear: He's thinking not at all about his contract, only about how he can bring the Stanley Cup back to Tampa Bay.
"I've definitely loved every second I've been here, and I want to be here and win with this team," Stamkos, 25, said. "To be able to go through what we went through last year and come up short, you have that bitter taste in our mouth. You want to get back there with the guys you went through the battle with. That's the goal."
Stamkos arrived in Tampa as a prized prospect from the Toronto suburb of Markham, Ontario.
Now Stamkos, the longest-tenured Lightning player, has joked he feels like the "old fart" on a team littered with young talent.
"Crazy," he said. "I mean, time flies."
Stamkos is honored to have been with the same organization for eight years, a tenure rare in today's NHL. He also takes pride in the franchise's resurrection, having been here through the very dark days after the 2004 Stanley Cup win. There was the botched 16-game experiment with coach Barry Melrose in Stamkos' first season. There were the "cowboy" owners, Oren Koules and Len Barrie, who ran the Lightning nearly into the ground. But at last there's stability again, with a world-class owner in Jeff Vinik, a respected legend in Yzerman running hockey operations, and a fan base that packed 18,000 into Amalie Arena for a watch party for Game 6 of last season's Stanley Cup final against the Blackhawks.
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"It's night and day," Stamkos said. "I remember coming into the league as an 18-year-old playing with guys like Mark Recchi and Gary Roberts, who have been around, and them telling me, 'It's not really like this in this league. You've seen some stuff that we haven't seen in 20-plus years.' It was an experience to go through those times, some adverse moments like that."
The Lightning didn't transform overnight, or without hiccups. But Stamkos, who is playing for his fourth coach, said the league's perception of the Lightning and the Tampa Bay market is tough to top.
"It used to be just a great place to live, not necessarily a great place to be an NHL hockey player," Stamkos said. "But I think if you did a poll around the league, Tampa would probably be top-five for sure now. … It's the whole package."
When it comes to individual accolades, Stamkos has won almost all the big ones.
He's a three-time All-Star. He has won two Rocket Richard trophies as the league's top goal scorer. Stamkos even racked up 60 goals in 2011-12.
But one key element is missing from his resume.
"You dream as a kid to win the Cup," he said. "When you're younger, you think you'll be in this league 15, 20 years, 'I'll win one, no problem.' It doesn't matter if you don't win this year.
"The individual stats, that's great. But as you go along in your career, when you get the chance you get and the opportunities, you see how few and far between they are. Reality starts to kick in."
After Stamkos reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final in 2011, a loss to the Bruins, it took four years for the Lightning to win another playoff game, in last season's run to the Cup final, where it lost to the Blackhawks in six games. Stamkos went through much-publicized scoring struggles in last season's playoffs, including racking up just one assist in the final series despite several quality chances.
That was difficult for Stamkos, but he believes he gave it everything he had, sacrificing what he could, even playing wing instead of his usual center spot. Yzerman hinted that Stamkos played hurt, and it doesn't sound like the Lightning is holding the captain's playoff point production against him during negotiations.
"As our captain, he did everything that we've asked of him," Yzerman said.
"He's as big a winner as there is in this league over the last 10 years," NBC analyst Pierre McGuire said. "He's helped rebuild and remodel a franchise, and had to do it with not really the same type of run support that (Sidney) Crosby had in Pittsburgh and (Jonathan) Toews had in Chicago."
Vinik is confident Yzerman can figure out a deal with Stamkos, hoping he finishes his career in a Lightning uniform.
McGuire said that knowing all the parties involved — including agent Don Meehan — he'd be "really, really surprised" if an extension didn't get done.
"These negotiations are tricky," McGuire said. "But I do think it'll play out in a positive way."
So what's the holdup?
There's the rumored rift between Stamkos and coach Jon Cooper over playing time and Stamkos playing wing, something both have denied publicly. For what it's worth, Stamkos has been playing at center, his preferred position, throughout training camp, and alongside touted playmaking wing Jonathan Drouin, whom the captain is a "big fan" of. That can't hurt.
There's the allure of free agency, where Stamkos could have a chance to end up the king in Toronto, in effect his hometown.
Then there's the financial pickle. Stamkos might warrant a deal similar to the eight-year, $84 million extensions signed by Chicago star forwards Toews and Patrick Kane in 2014. But with the salary cap likely to remain flat because of the declining value of the Canadian dollar, the Lightning will have to make tough decisions to keep its core together. Defenseman Victor Hedman will need a new deal in two seasons, as will two-thirds of its Triplets line, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, not to mention potentially goalie Ben Bishop.
Though Stamkos is under no obligation to offer a hometown discount, he understands the implications of a large deal for the Lightning in coming years.
"That's why it's a … negotiation," Stamkos said. "Because there are certain things that need to get worked out before a deal can be in place."
Newport Sports has a track record of having high-profile stars sign extensions during the final year of their deals, including the Ducks' Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf in March 2013, four months away from free agency.
Stamkos is in control, holding that no-move clause as a trump card. Whether he becomes the third consecutive Lightning captain to finish his career in another uniform, following Vinny Lecavalier (Flyers) and recently retired Marty St. Louis (Rangers), remains to be seen.
But it appears that at the least, Stamkos will finish this season in Tampa for another Cup run. He'll enjoy hanging with teammates and taking his 100-pound Swiss Mountain dog, Trigger, for walks in the South Tampa waterfront neighborhood where he has lived the past seven years.
"Still in the same place," Stamkos said of his Tampa home. "Obviously have to see what's going to happen with the negotiations. But the same place."