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  1. Lightning

Stamkos returns, says contract extension talks in 'middle stages' (w/ video)

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos says he and his teammates will be better for having gone through last season’s playoff run, which ended with a six-game loss to the Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup final.

BRANDON — After a couple of days of getting peppered with questions about his uncertain future, Lightning captain Steven Stamkos had a blast staying in the present Thursday morning.

Stamkos, 25, was in his sanctuary, back on the ice in his first day at Tampa Bay's informal skates at the Ice Sports Forum. Nearly the entire team has assembled a week ahead of the opening of training camp Sept. 17, the hunger palpable among players after losing in the Stanley Cup final in June.

Stamkos still doesn't have a contract extension, a subject that swirled during this week's NHL media tour in Toronto and will likely hang over Lightning camp. He said talks are in the "middle stages," with no deadline to cut them off even as he heads into the final year of his deal. He can become an unrestricted free agent July 1.

Stamkos wants the focus to be on the ice, where the Lightning faces the daunting task of becoming the third team in the salary cap era to reach back-to-back Stanley Cup finals, after the 2008-09 Red Wings and Penguins.

"I think that what might get us in trouble, if we think that we still have some unfinished business … (is) thinking that we're just going to get back there," Stamkos said. "We can't hang our head on the fact we made it to the finals last year. Our focus has to be, let's start off the year on time and make the playoffs.

"You see the parity in this league. It's unmatched in pro sports. The focus should be on learning from the experiences of last season and all the knowledge that we gained along the way and have a good year with the team. Teams are gunning (for us)."

Stamkos, who ranked second in the league with 43 goals last season, is excited about how he feels physically despite having a shorter summer. Unlike last offseason, when he was rehabilitating his surgically repaired right leg after breaking it during the season, there were "no restrictions" this time in workouts.

But Stamkos also believes he and his team will be better having gone through their postseason run, which included Game 7 wins over the Red Wings and Rangers, before losing in six games in the Cup final to the Blackhawks. Stamkos said the Blackhawks, who have won three Cups in the past five years, showed their experience and "calmness" in tight games, five of which were decided by one goal.

"That's what good teams do, they earn those bounces," Stamkos said. "And we didn't seem to have that luck towards the end."

Neither did Stamkos, who went goal-less in the Cup final (and had just one point), capping off a roller-coaster postseason (seven goals, 11 assists).

"There are ups and downs," he said. "You go through adverse times; you have to go through those. It's not a walk in the park, by any means. It was my first full year as captain, and I learned a lot about what it takes to lead, to be proud of the fact you're the captain of the team two wins away from the Stanley Cup.

"You go through those experiences. They're not always going to go the way you want, but it makes you better, and hopefully this makes not only the team better but me personally."

Stamkos and his teammates insist that his contract situation will not be a distraction or take away from their play. Stamkos said the talks haven't gotten to the stage where they would be cut off, noting there's a month before the Oct. 8 season opener.

"My teammates know the kind of person that I am, the type of leader that I am," Stamkos said. "I'm going to do everything possible to help our team win games. As long as that's the mentality, nothing else should really bug us."

Contact Joe Smith at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.

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