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Buckle up, Stamkos contract talks could get bumpy

Steven Stamkos - the Lightning's captain, best player and face of the franchise - is entering the final year of his contract and will be an unrestricted free agent next summer. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Steven Stamkos - the Lightning's captain, best player and face of the franchise - is entering the final year of his contract and will be an unrestricted free agent next summer. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Sept. 18, 2015

TAMPA

Lightning training camp got under way Thursday, and there are plenty of questions.

Will Tampa Bay be ready after a short offseason? Can it repeat as conference champs? Can it win the Stanley Cup?

But really, there's only one question that matters right now.

What's up with Stamkos?

Steven Stamkos — the Lightning's captain, best player and face of the franchise — is entering the final year of his contract and can be an unrestricted free agent next summer.

General manager Steve Yzerman says signing Stamkos is a top priority. Stamkos says he loves it here.

So, what gives? Why isn't Stamkos already signed?

Buckle up. This could get bumpy.

There's no reason to go into full panic mode just yet. But don't think extending Stamkos is a given, either. This thing could go either way.

The sides are talking. That's good. But he doesn't sound close to being signed. That's not good.

From Stamkos' current home (Tampa Bay) to his hometown (Toronto), plenty of rumors and theories are out there.

Hmm. Maybe Stamkos wants to go back home to Toronto. Maybe Stamkos doesn't get along with coach Jon Cooper. Maybe Stamkos wants to play center and not the wing.

On the other hand, maybe the Lightning would trade Stamkos or let him walk in order to keep players down the road, such as Victor Hedman and the "Triplets" line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov.

Both sides aren't saying much.

"I'm not going to say something that someone can twist,'' Stamkos, 25, said Thursday. "All the stuff that has gone on between us is going to stay that way. When there is an announcement to be made, there will be one.''

Stamkos is very aware of things being twisted. He took batting practice with the Blue Jays this summer, leading to rampant speculation in Toronto that he wanted to play for the Maple Leafs.

"People forgot I took BP here with the Rays,'' Stamkos said.

It has gotten that crazy. Stamkos wore a Rays hat in Toronto, and most of Canada went into a deep depression. Imagine what would happen if he wore a Blue Jays hat around here? Around anywhere?

"I should be able to wear whatever hat I want,'' Stamkos said.

What does he think when every word he says is dissected and every piece of clothing is scrutinized?

"It is amusing,'' Stamkos said. "It's funny how people can change your words around or make a story out of nothing. That's the reality, especially … in Toronto, where I'm from, it's going to happen. I don't think anything has surprised me over the past couple of months. People are entitled to say whatever they want.

"Whatever helps people, I guess, do their jobs, I'm glad to help.''

So what about all these theories?

Let's start with the Maple Leafs rumor. Everyone points to the pressure of playing in Canada and how the Maple Leafs are lousy as reasons Stamkos would want nothing to do with Toronto.

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Don't be naive. Stamkos certainly could handle the pressure of Toronto. And do not underestimate the lure of a Toronto boy going back home to lead the Leafs to a Stanley Cup. That's the stuff kids from Toronto dream about out on the frozen pond. I'd bet anything the thought of wearing the Maple Leaf has crossed his mind.

He would be a way bigger deal in Toronto than he is here, and that popularity, along with extra endorsement money, could appeal to Stamkos.

Is there anything to a Cooper-Stamkos rift? Perhaps, but I'm not buying that as a factor.

Meantime, Yzerman has a decision. If he re-signs Stamkos, he's probably going to lose another key piece or two.

But Stamkos is worth it. It's rare to find a player with Stamkos' blend of incredible skill, leadership ability and high character. Hedman and Johnson and the other Triplets are good players, but they are not Stamkos. Only Hedman is close, and he's not that close.

Stamkos is an elite player. He is the Lightning's best player now and will be in five years if he is re-signed. I would question the hockey knowledge of those who point to an inconsistent postseason last season as a reason why Stamkos isn't special. If there was a draft of Lightning players, every other NHL team would, without a second's hesitation, take Stamkos with the first pick.

Stamkos and Hedman need to be the priorities.

There's no drop-dead date for re-signing Stamkos. No deadline. Stamkos could sign next week or next month or early next year or not at all. He says he won't be affected by his contract status even though he will be asked about it all the time.

So what message does he have for Lightning fans?

"I'm still the captain of this team, and we have some unfinished business right now,'' Stamkos said. "I definitely love being here. We had a great run last year, and we want to win a championship, and I want to be a part of that. That hasn't changed since the day I first got to Tampa.''

The day he first got to Tampa Bay was a great day for the Lightning.

But at the moment, there's a bigger concern: His last day with the Lightning might be sooner than Tampa Bay wants.