The more this goes along, the more it looks and sounds like Steven Stamkos is heading towards a breakup with the Tampa Bay Lighting.
It might even come by the end of the month.
No one is saying that openly, not exactly. But there’s something about the way the “no comments” are flowing with a little more than two weeks left before the Feb. 29 trade deadline that makes you wonder if the situation is coming to a head.
When veteran agent Don Meehan of Newport Sports appeared on Prime Time Sports earlier this week it was notable when he responded to a question about Stamkos and the deadline by saying: “Well, I think it’s a sensitive issue.”
Then Stamkos met reporters on Thursday and declined to rule out the possibility of waiving his no-movement clause to help the Lightning facilitate a deal.
“I haven't even thought about that,” said Stamkos, according to Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times. “I think the answer is, 'We'll cross that bridge at the time, and I don't think it's that time now.’ So I continue to come to the rink everyday as the leader that I am and the teammate that everyone in this room knows that I am, and give my best effort.”
He added: “The trade deadline is coming up in a couple weeks. I'm sure everyone will have some answers in a couple weeks when that comes.”
There is an obvious danger in reading too much into any open-ended comments, especially in this case where Stamkos, Meehan and the Lightning have been extremely mindful about not taking their dealings public. But there also appears to be a subtle hint built-in here because the issue of the trade deadline is completely different than the contract negotiation itself.
Think about it: Stamkos has repeatedly expressed a desire to remain in Tampa to chase a Stanley Cup. He’s said it time and time again, including during the recent all-star weekend in Nashville.
So what harm would it do him now to come out and say he’s expecting his NMC to allow him to continue to focus on the Lighting’s championship pursuit?
It would certainly eliminate a lot of personal aggravation in the coming weeks, when the focus on this issue is bound to intensify. Unless, of course, he believes there’s a chance it doesn’t play out that way.
I have always been of the belief that Tampa would hold on to Stamkos beyond the deadline even if he remained unsigned because the team is clearly better this spring with him than without him. That could still happen, of course, but as it starts to get closer there are a couple other factors to consider.
Stamkos is not having a great season by his own lofty standards. In fact, with 21 goals in 53 games, the two-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner is on pace for the lowest total he’s posted in a full NHL campaign since his rookie year.
And the Lightning, while hot in recent weeks, have dealt with a lot of ups and downs this season and don’t appear to be the same threat they were last spring.
Plus, the obvious fact remains: Losing Stamkos, the asset, for nothing is an extremely difficult proposition to digest, and Tampa GM Steve Yzerman is now staring that potential outcome in the face with his captain.
“It’s a self-evident issue,” Meehan said Wednesday on PTS. “Beyond the trade deadline there’s no possibility to move the player or move the asset.”
There are a few scouts and executives out there that can envision a scenario where Stamkos is moved. What that hypothetical trade would look like depends heavily on whether it includes a contract extension with a 26-year-old who is otherwise poised to become the biggest free agent of the NHL’s salary cap era.
Admittedly, we won’t truly know what is driving Stamkos until everything plays out and he illuminates the process. Family, future, legacy and role are obviously big factors in a decision the player says he’s been heavily involved in working through with his agents at Newport.
In the meantime, with a paucity of concrete information, we have to draw our own conclusions about where things are headed.
“We've kept everything to ourselves and I know it sucks for you guys (the media),” Stamkos told reporters in Tampa on Thursday. “I totally understand. But I think you can appreciate the way we've conducted doing business and whatever happens in the next couple weeks, there's obviously going to be some answers.”
He appears to be pointing to a deadline that has nothing to do with free agency on July 1.
Perhaps the resolution to this situation is coming a little sooner than the hockey world originally thought.