In mid June, two days after the Lightning's remarkable run to the Stanley Cup final ended, general manager Steve Yzerman was asked what his top priority was for the summer.
"I would like to get Steven Stamkos signed to an extension," Yzerman said. "That's my No. 1 priority."
Nearly six months later, there's still no deal for Stamkos, 25, the Lightning captain and face of the franchise, who is in the final year of his contract. The scary part for Lightning fans is that nothing appears even close to being done.
This has an eerie feel to it, to the point the once unthinkable seems increasingly possible: Stamkos could be in his final few months in a Lightning uniform.
MORE ON STAMKOS CONTRACT TALKS
MORE ON STAMKOS CONTRACT TALKS
Before you shoot the messenger, there's a caveat: No one truly knows how this will end, except maybe Stamkos and Yzerman. Neither side has commented publicly on negotiations. Stamkos' agent, Don Meehan of Newport Sports, told a Toronto radio station early this month that they were still "engaged" with Yzerman and doing due diligence to the "nth degree."
But the longer this goes on, the more it could become a problem for Tampa Bay, which might soon be at a crossroads about what to do with its superstar. If Yzerman realizes he can't sign Stamkos, does he try to trade him by the Feb. 29 deadline to avoid losing him for nothing? Would Stamkos, who has a full no-move clause, approve a deal?
On the surface, an extension seemed easy. Stamkos, who has been with the Lightning since being drafted No. 1 overall in 2008, said he wanted to stay; loves his teammates, the city, the fans; respects Yzerman and owner Jeff Vinik. The Lightning hoped to keep Stamkos, one of the league's top scorers and ambassadors. But at what cost?
Stamkos could certainly warrant a deal similar to the eight-year, $84 million extensions that Blackhawks stars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews got in 2014. Stamkos might receive more as an unrestricted free agent in the summer; don't you think his hometown Maple Leafs would open the vault? This will be the richest contract in Stamkos' career, and he has earned the right to seek it.
But with the salary cap likely to remain flat in coming years, Yzerman is probably still pondering if he can sign Stamkos and still keep his championship-caliber core together. Can he give Stamkos $10 million or $11 million a year — a hefty bump over his $7.5 million cap hit this season — and find room for Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Victor Hedman and Ben Bishop, who all will need new deals after next season, and Nikita Kucherov, a restricted free agent this summer? Hedman is a no-brainer to lock up. Bishop, due to the emergence of Andrei Vasilevskiy, could be let go. But who else?
Yzerman loves depth, building an organization by drafting and developing, inserting younger (and cheaper) players when need be. But if Stamkos is gone, can Johnson be a No. 1 center? How would he replace Stamkos' scoring? This is Yzerman's toughest decision yet, even more so than dealing Marty St. Louis in 2014.
NBC analyst Pierre McGuire, who said before this season he'd be "very, very surprised" if the Lightning didn't sign Stamkos, is now "nervous." McGuire believes this saga is a concern for the Lightning, with it becoming "more about the individual than the team."
"The longer you go along, the questions start to be more about an individual than about the team," McGuire said. "And when that starts to happen, it affects the fiber of the team. … You try to get these done, put to bed sooner rather than later, and if you can't, then at some point you're in a precarious position.
"It's a tricky thing, especially as you get closer and closer to January, only because the media scrutiny is going to be out there more and more, especially from Canadian cities to cities that think, 'Maybe if Steven Stamkos ever becomes an unrestricted free agent, we have a chance to get him.' That's a difficult thing because players start to wonder, 'Is he one of us or someone else?' "
Stamkos' teammates say his contract hasn't been a distraction. But what happens when there's a media circus in Toronto for the Lightning's game there Dec. 15? How about when the Lightning is preparing for a playoff run and Stamkos is part of trade rumors at the deadline?
At this point, the outcome is anyone's guess.