Steven Stamkos has led the Lightning in goals in five of his eight seasons in Tampa Bay.
Kim Klement/Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Loyalty, respect and the potential to win for years to come kept Steven Stamkos in Tampa Bay.
The Lightning captain said Thursday that he followed his heart in re-signing with the team that drafted him No. 1 overall in 2008 rather than testing free agency, where he likely would have commanded much more than the $68 million he’s due to earn over the next eight seasons.
"Some people when they’re in this position chase, obviously, the most money possible," the two-time NHL scoring champion said during a conference call.
"For me, I realize the situation and understood that there could have been some money left out there. But for me, that’s not what it’s all about. It’s about going to an organization that I was comfortable with, and something that gave me the best chance to win in my mind," Stamkos added.
"It was a very tough decision. It truly was. I can’t sit here and say this past week has been fun. … It was pretty stressful, to be honest. I’m glad it’s over with."
A person with direct knowledge of how the contract is structured said Stamkos will make $9.5 million in each of the first five years of the deal, then $7.5 million in 2021-22 and $6.5 million in both 2022-23 and 2023-24. The source spoke on the condition of anonymity because those details have not been revealed.
Stamkos, who helped the Lightning reach the Eastern Conference final three times in eight seasons, cited his relationship with owner Jeff Vinik, his respect for general manager Steve Yzerman and the coaching staff, as well as a talented nucleus of players "built to win for years" as significant factors in his decision.
Tampa Bay lost to Chicago in the Stanley Cup Final in 2015, then made it back to the Eastern Conference final this year before falling to Pittsburgh in seven games.
Stamkos is the team’s biggest star, but hardly a one-man show on a roster also featuring defenseman Victor Hedman, young forwards Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn, and goalie Ben Bishop.
"My intention all along was to hopefully work something out with Tampa. It’s been a great eight years that I’ve been here. … This team is on the verge of hopefully competing for Stanley Cups for years to come," the four-time All-Star said. "With me being a captain, and being the leader of that team, I felt kind of in my heart that was always the place I wanted to stay."
Stamkos has won the Maurice Richard Trophy as the NHL’s top scorer twice, including 2011-12, when he had a career-best 60. He’s had 40-plus goals in a season four times and had a shot at doing it again this year before being sidelined in April by surgery to treat a blood clot discovered near his right collarbone.
The injury kept him out of the lineup until Tampa Bay’s 2-1 loss to the Penguins in Game 7 of the East final.
Yzerman announced the deal Wednesday night, saying he believes the 26-year-old center is entering the prime of his career and that his "best years are ahead of him."
Stamkos’ willingness to accept less money than he figured to be offered by potential suitors in free agency provides the Lightning with some flexibility in trying to keep the team’s core intact in coming seasons.
"We’re trying to put as competitive a team on the ice (as possible) and we asked Stammer, will you work us on this? This is what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to be the best team we possibly can be," Yzerman said.
Stamkos’ hometown Toronto Maple Leafs, the Buffalo Sabres and Detroit Red Wings were among the teams expected to make a run at the Tampa Bay captain if he had become an unrestricted free agent on Friday.
"I think Tampa gives me the best chance to win and be successful moving forward," Stamkos said.
"Obviously being there the past eight years and knowing what to expect, knowing what we have going forward with the core group of guys we have plays into the decision," he added. "And for me, it was just following your heart and being loyal to an organization that has brought me up and made me the player and the person I am today."
Stamkos, who has 312 goals, agreed with Yzerman’s assessment that he’s yet to peak as player.
"A lot of people are going base your performance on statistics and goals and points, but I can say 100 percent that I’m a better player in all areas than I was when I first entered the league," Stamkos said.
"There’s still lots of room to grow as a player, to get better," he added. "As long as you’re willing to put the work in, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t happen."