Friday, July 1, 2016

Steve Stamkos Stays in Tampa

In the end it was just nice that he chose to stay. The reasons don't really matter, well they kind of matter, but just the fact that Steven Stamkos, the looming big prize of the NHL free agent market, took a look at what was out there and said, “Nope. I think I'll stick here for a little bit longer.”

I'm going to pile my money this high!

Stamkos will be seen in Tampa during the hockey season for the next 8 years. And it only cost the Tampa Bay Lightning $68 million (notice how easy it is to say “only cost” when it's not your money?) He turned down the chance to make more money and return home (Toronto), the chance to be the next great center for a storied franchise (Detroit) and the chance to make A LOT more money and be the final piece in propelling an up-and-coming franchise into competition (Buffalo).

What a relief it is for fans in the Tampa Bay Area to finally have someone choose to stay. We've become conditioned to the fact that as a smaller market, players grew into superstars and then leave for bigger markets. Either they sign big free agent deals with other teams (Carl Crawford, Nikolai Khabibulin) or they get traded before the big money is due (David Price, Brad Richards, Dan Boyle, Scott Kazmir). We're just used to athletes leaving town.

But for once, the superstar, despite better offers, despite the chance to play for his hometown team, picked to stay in Tampa Bay. When the news broke (conveniently when I was at work) and the texts and the alerts blew up my phone, I was legitimately happy. As in, find someone to high-five happy. And this is where being an out-of-town fan kind of sucks. There weren't any Lightning fans in the hotel lobby so it was kind of hard to explain why I was grinning like a doofus for my entire shift.

Stamkos talked about loyalty to the organization where he “grew up as a kid” and Mr. Yzerman talked about the respect Stamkos had for the organization and the process (we were one “hustle” comment away from a John Cena t-shirt). There was a feel that money wasn't the number one concern during Stamkos' short-lived journey as a possible free agent.

He even acknowledged it in the phone conference on Thursday when he mentioned that both sides (him and the team) have to make “sacrifices” to keep the core of a Stanley Cup contending team together. Granted sacrificing between $8.5 million a year or possibly $11 million isn't exactly Sophie's Choice, but not too many of us would turn down a couple of million bucks. Hell, I'd jump ship from my current employer for an extra $20,000 a year.

While I was emotionally prepared for him to leave (at least I'd like to think I was) I did have a feeling he wanted to come back. Again, I don't see someone working his ass off to recover from an injury to play one game for a team he was going to ditch in two months. No one would have thought less of him if he had sat out of Game 7 against the Penguins.

Did he waste a lot of our time and digital ink by signing what was, in essence, the same deal that was reported back in March? Maybe, but if you look at it from his point of view, not really. He used the system in place to get as much information as possible. In the end, waiting until June 30th wasn't a huge problem for the Lightning. If he had waited until August and then came back, that could have led to some animosity from fans and ownership as it would have handcuffed the things Mr. Yzerman needed to do to put a competitive team on the ice.

This is what a "thrilled" and "very, very, very happy" Steve Yzerman looks like.

Luckily for the Lightning and Lightning fans, money doesn't seem to be the driving force for Steven Stamkos. Even going back to the deal he signed as a restricted free agent. He could have held out for more than 5 years and $37.5 million. He could have forced the Lightning to sign him to an 8-year extension back then, but he didn't.

This summer he could have made more money signing elsewhere. Heck he could have demanded that Mr. Yzerman at least pay him a contract that averaged $9 million a year so that it would look like he made the team move off of their initial offer. Luckily his pride at being a leader and a player is stronger than his pride in being a negotiator.

While we're at it, let's give a round of applause to the NHL free agency process. When the new CBA was released with its salary caps and contract limits, this exact scenario was why it was put in place. In the old days, when cap hits weren't a concern a team like the Rangers or Toronto could have swooped in and offered him an Ovechkin-like 13-year, $150 million deal.

The Lightning, as a smaller revenue generating club, would never have had a chance to match that without crippling the franchise for years. Instead, they held the advantage by being able to add the 8th year to the contract (all other teams could only offer a max of 7 years) and keep the total value of the contract in the ballpark with what other teams could offer.

So for all of the legitimate crap that we give the NHL, as Lightning fans, lets acknowledge that the system does work in our favor from time to time. Now, if under the same system some team drops an offer sheet for Nikita Kucherov, all these kind words are forgotten.

Link shot me a text and asked me if I liked the deal. As a fan, my immediate thought was, “Yes, of course I do! Stamkos is back. I don't have to buy a new jersey!” However, the other part of me, the rational one, the one that kept me from weeping in the corner when Vinny Lecavalier was bought out, like the deal as well.

I miss Vinny and I miss this uniform.

From a financial point it was a big deal. It will probably lead to someone I don't want to see leave the team, leaving the team. But it was nowhere as bad as it could have been. For the last five years his salary cap hit has been $7.5 million. For the next eight years it will be $8.5 million. He is only 26-years-old so for half of the deal, he should still be close to his prime. If hockey revenues keep growing, by the time he's over 30, third-line centers are going to be making $9 million a year so it's going to be a bargain.

Since he entered the league in 2008, the only person who has scored more goals is Alex Ovechkin. Even in an “off” year he will score 30 goals. He makes people who play with him better (a scary thought if Jonathan Drouin manages to stay on his line). The Lightning keep two legitimate scoring lines with him on the roster.

It also establishes, without a doubt, that he is the leader of this team. That was the best thing to hear in his phone call on Thursday. He didn't talk about money being the reason he stayed, but about the opportunity not only to win the Stanley Cup, but to be the leader of the team that wins the Cup.

Even though he has been the captain since St. Louis left, the specter of him leaving hung over the team. In my drafts I had a post started breaking down who would wear the “C” after Stamkos signed with Toronto (spoiler – it was Victor Hedman). Now, there is no doubt. And it sounds like he is ready for it.

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