Steven Stamkos settled on the “hometown” discount.
It just wasn’t in the hometown many fans around Toronto, or Buffalo, or even as far down the highway as Detroit had in mind.
All along, it was difficult not to look at the riches Stamkos had before him and wonder why he was searching for greener pastures. Sure, he’d earned the right to pursue his options as a pending unrestricted free agent, but it felt like there was a real danger in focusing on what you don’t have rather than what you do.
In Tampa, he has a beautiful home and a vastly under-rated hockey city.
In Tampa, he has a favourable tax situation and a fantastic climate and a dressing room full of teammates he’s grown close with over eight years as face of the franchise.
In Tampa, I’m willing to now bet, he’ll eventually get to lift the Stanley Cup after signing a $68-million, eight-year contract extension about 47 hours before hitting the open market.
This was the right choice from the beginning and it sure seemed like Stamkos grasped that even while making everyone sweat right up until the 11th hour. We often hear athletes in these type of situations say that they want to remain where they are while privately backing the moving truck up to their house in the dark of night as free agency nears.
This? This was never that.
Stamkos understood that if he made the decision to leave the Lightning there was a pretty good chance he’d come to regret it. That had to cross his mind this week, especially, after the interview period opened up and he started speaking with other teams about what their situation could offer him.
He even had a meeting with Maple Leafs brass at 50 Bay St. in Toronto, high above the Air Canada Centre.
The fact he ended up signing the same eight-year deal my colleague Elliotte Friedman reported was first put on the table by Tampa in January tells us two important things:
1) Steve Yzerman is as exemplary in his front-office role for the Lightning as he once was as a player. He draws a line and doesn’t blink in the face of whatever pressure arrives afterward (see Drouin, Jonathan).
2) Stamkos could never truly envision himself elsewhere, whether it was with his boyhood team (Leafs) or one that would probably have made him the NHL’s highest-paid player (Sabres, Red Wings).
To understand the decision fully we must remember where the 26-year-old centre has been. He arrived in Tampa with the organization running a gimmicky “Seen Stamkos?” campaign after drafting him first overall in 2008, and then was immediately part of a disastrous 24-win season.
He learned quickly how bad it can feel to be on a terrible team.
The only playoff experience he got at all in his first five NHL seasons came with a surprising, unsustainable run to the Eastern Conference final in 2011.
It is only in these last few years – under the stable ownership of Jeffrey Vinik, impressive stewardship of Yzerman and steady hand of head coach Jon Cooper – that the Lightning became a force. They were knocked out of the playoffs by the eventual Stanley Cup champion each of the past two springs.
A successful organization needs a lot to fall in place just so.
Along the way, Stamkos also saw one captain bought out (Vinny Lecavalier) and another demand a trade (Marty St. Louis), and had to understand how quickly all of your hard work as a franchise pillar can turn to dust.
Then as this year’s playoffs drew near, he had a blood clot discovered near his right collarbone that required surgery and forced him to the sidelines. It left a lot of time to think. Stamkos also worked diligently on his own for weeks to stay in shape and managed to return for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final in Pittsburgh after getting his blood-thinning medication on the proper cycle.
There were tears in his eyes when the Lightning were eliminated that night. He said afterwards that he never thought of it as his final game with the organization.
“We’re such a tight group,” Stamkos said in a quiet visiting locker-room at Consol Energy Center. “We’re such a team that has gone through a lot this year, different types of adversity and we’ve come through with flying colours. It just didn’t happen tonight for whatever reason.
“Usually, these are the moments that things go well because of the things you had to endure as a group, but, for whatever reason, we’re going to learn from this and, hopefully, come back stronger.”
And so he is on his way back to Tampa to finish the job.
He could have chased more money or more fame elsewhere, but after going through a year of soul-searching that’s just what felt right.