1. Lightning

Feels like there's a final loss still to come for Bolts

STEVEN STAMKOS SIGNED! Autographs, that is, for some 100 fans who lined up early Friday to greet the Bolts at the Tampa Jet Center after their 2-1 loss to the Penguins in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. Stammer maintains that he still wants to stay in Tampa. We’ll see.
Published May 31, 2016

Have we seen the last of Steven Stamkos in a Lightning sweater?

It sure feels like it.

Really, it felt like it all season, to the very end, even with Stamkos back in the lineup after eight weeks, returning from blood clots, as the Lightning fell short in Game 7 of the conference final in Pittsburgh.

The season is over. Now there's only the door. And Stamkos walking through it. And his introductory news conference, in Toronto, Detroit, Buffalo or wherever.

It's just a question of when No. 91 walks through that door, be it July 1, when he can become an unrestricted free agent, or sometime after.

Feel free to surprise us with an eleventh-hour contract, guys.

It would be the salary cap upset of the century.

Let's not get all weepy here or turn this into an Adele song. Stamkos will make tens of millions of dollars no matter where he goes, and the Lightning will carry on.

It still feels like the end of something.

I think the Lightning is crazy for letting 312 goals and 26 years old walk. I think Stamkos, given the talents around him, is crazy to walk. No one is to blame. Everyone is to blame.

How did a deal not get done last summer? How?

All we had was Stamkos and his teammates packing their hockey bags at Amalie Arena, with no idea where Stamkos will unpack next season.

Lightning GM Steve Yzerman, who has built a winner here, is up against it. There might be no way to keep this club intact, given the possibility of a stagnant cap, plus all that young Lightning talent that needs raises.

But Stamkos won't and shouldn't take a hometown discount. Free agency is a month away. Why negotiate with one team when he can negotiate with 30 teams?

Friday, Yzerman repeated that he wants Stamkos back, and Stamkos repeated that he wants to be back. Everyone said the right things, but at this point it's all very hollow.

Guys, feel free to jump in here with an agreement in principle …

"Stammer's situation has a significant impact on what we do moving forward and what we can do moving forward," Yzerman said.

Everything breaks from there.

Stamkos said, "There are some tough decisions to be made, not only this organization but a lot of others around the league. … But I'm sure if both sides want to work something out, we'll work something out."

Sure thing.

Feel free to shock us, boys.

It's easy now to wonder why Yzerman didn't sign Stamkos to more than a five-year contract back in 2011. Stamkos was only 21 but already had a 51-goal season and a 45-goal season.

"We had our reasons for making the decisions we did at the time," Yzerman said. "I can't look back and second-guess. It doesn't do any good. We made decisions at the time. And here we are today."

He's got that right.

Could Stamkos have come up bigger in postseasons? Yes. Are his numbers down since he broke his leg early in the 2012-13 season? Yes. Did the Lightning just win two playoff series without him? Yes. Is Nikita Kucherov a shooting star? Yes.

The Lightning is about to watch a generational goal scorer head out the door — without getting anything for him. Think about that.

The Lightning is about to lose a true professional who arrived here eight years ago with a grace and a dignity that have marked his years with the Lightning. A franchise face. Think about that, too.

Stun us whenever you're ready, fellas.

It says something about Stamkos that he worked his way back from serious surgery to play in Game 7. It says something that he lingered to sign autographs for the sprinkling of devout Lightning fans who were there when the team charter from Pittsburgh arrived in Tampa at 2:30 Friday morning,

It feels like the end of something.


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