The summer of 2015 was supposed to see an increase in speculation over superstar Steven Stamkos’ future with the Tampa Bay Lightning. It’s now August but there’s been scarcely a peep in the media.
Stamkos, 25, is eligible next July for unrestricted free agency. He’s entering the final season of a five-year deal worth $7.5 million annually, though in actual salary he’ll earn $5.5 million after making $8 million per season over the last four years.
It’s assumed Stamkos, one of the NHL’s top snipers (over the last five seasons, only Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin has scored more goals) and a two-time winner of the Richard Trophy, will earn top dollar on his next contract, likely a seven- or eight-year deal (depending on who he signs with) worth over $10 million annually.
As of July 1, 2015, the Lightning can initiate contract talks with Stamkos. On June 17, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman claimed re-signing his captain was his top priority. Since then, however, there’s been precious little news on the status of such talks. The only recent report was Stamkos’ agent, Don Meehan, telling TSN on July 8 that talks had yet to begin.
The lack of talent available in this summer’s UFA market was supposed to stoke speculation over Stamkos’ future. Desperate fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs fervently believe Stamkos, a native of the Toronto suburb of Markam, will “come home” via next summer’s free-agent market.
During the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons claimed in back-to-back columns that Stamkos wasn’t being treated like a superstar by Lightning coach Jon Cooper. He speculated that could result in Stamkos’ departure via free agency or perhaps a trade.
Simmons, by the way, was also ridiculed in early-July for what some observers considered a hit piece on departed Maple Leafs star Phil Kessel, so most fans probably won’t take his musings over Stamkos too seriously. Still, it’s doubtful Simmons is the only pundit with questions about the Lightning captain’s contract status and future in Tampa Bay.
The absence of Stamkos speculation thus far is due to most hockey pundits being on vacation or covering something else for the rest of the summer. As Stamkos is under contract for next season and thus won’t receive an offer sheet from a rival club, there’s no concern over his current status. A trade is a possibility but, given Stamkos’ no-movement clause, a remote one.
Neither the Stamkos camp or Lightning management seem concerned over when contract talks will being. If you’re a Bolts fan, that can be interpreted as a good sign. Perhaps both sides know they’ll get a deal done and it’s only a matter of time until they’ll start dickering seriously over the terms.
If you’re a Leafs fan, or the fan of a struggling team lacking a superstar, you might interpret the lack of a new deal for Stamkos as proof he’ll be testing next summer’s UFA market, where he will be the most sought-after player available.
On the one hand, Stamkos departing via free agency seems ludicrous. Despite the rise of young talent like Tyler Johnson, Victor Hedman and Ondrej Palat, Stamkos remains the Lightning’s franchise player. They’re a better team with him in the lineup. While re-signing Stamkos will take a significant chunk from their payroll whilst making it difficult to re-sign Johnson, Hedman and Palat in two years’ time, he remains the player upon which their championship hopes rest.
It also seems unlikely that Stamkos will seriously consider leaving what could be a perennial Stanley Cup contender simply to join a rebuilding team (like the Maple Leafs) or a lesser club elsewhere.
Then again, money talks and Stamkos will want to get paid his full worth. It’s a fantasy to think he’ll accept a hometown discount to stay in Tampa Bay. Yes, he wants to play for a winner. Yes, he loves playing and living in Tampa Bay. But he also wants to be paid like a superstar, and those salaries ain’t cheap. If the Lightning can’t or won’t pay it, somebody else with plenty of cap space happily will next summer.
Are there issues between Stamkos and Cooper? If so, they’re doing a good job hiding them. Both men dismiss that talk out of hand. What’s undeniable is the fact the Lightning don’t want questions about Stamkos’ contract status or his relationship with the coaching staff, management or teammates becoming a distraction throughout next season.
If the Lightning are playing well, Stamkos will still be pestered over why he hasn’t re-signed yet and when he expects to do so. If he refuses to address those questions, he’ll be derided by some media wags as surly and uncooperative, while others will interpret his silence to mean negotiations aren’t going well. If the Bolts struggle, especially in the second half of the season, it’ll stoke trade rumors throughout the media and the blogosphere.
So the summer rolls on, with no sign of “Stammergeddon” on the horizon. Rest assured, however, if the Lightning haven’t inked Stamkos to a new deal when training camps open in September, questions over his future will begin in earnest.