The Lightning want Steven Stamkos, and Stamkos wants to stay. Is it enough?

TAMPA, Fla. — One of the first things Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois did after the team’s plane landed late Monday night was pull captain Steven Stamkos aside for a quick conversation.

The season had just ended in a Game 5 loss to the Panthers, and that meant the clock was ticking on Stamkos hitting free agency July 1.

After putting off contract talks all season, BriseBois decided to connect with the face of his franchise right away. He called agent Don Meehan the next day. The message to Stamkos is what BriseBois brought up on his own before Wednesday’s press conference.

“We want him to be a part of that group.”

The Lightning want Stamkos back, with BriseBois saying he’s “very hopeful” that he can get a deal done with the future Hall of Famer. Neither side committed to it being a slam dunk, though. That makes sense for any negotiation but especially this one. As much as this seems easy — Stamkos hopes to finish his career where it started, and the team wants to hold onto its iconic captain — it’ll come down to dollars and cents.

And what’s most important to Stamkos at this stage of his career?

When Stamkos was days away from being the most desired unrestricted free agent in a decade in the summer of 2016, he cited “unfinished business” and wanting to win a title with the Lightning as a reason for re-signing an eight-year deal. Now he’s been there, done that, twice, holding the Stanley Cup over his head in 2020 and 2021. His Hall of Fame plaque might as well be in production. He’s got plenty of money for multiple generations, his sons Carter and Chase in very good hands.

What will be the driving force in signing what could be his last contract?

“At the end of the day, winning is still what fuels me,” Stamkos said. “Being a big part of that culture fuels me. Obviously, certain things have changed now. I have an amazing young family that has put roots down in this city, and I really enjoy living here and playing here. From that perspective, the decision is more than just me now. That’s something that is amazing for me to be able to have that and be in that situation.

“There’s different factors than there were last time (I was at the end of my contract), but nothing’s really changed in terms of my mindset and where I wanted to be and play and that was here.”

Stamkos was disappointed at the start of training camp that there had been no contract talks over the summer, as he hoped to have a deal done before the final year of his contract. Was he hurt? Frustrated? Absolutely. Any player with pride, especially of that stature, wants to feel respected, part of the process. But teammates never saw the contract uncertainty impact the way Stamkos played or led in the room.

“You all saw, from the trade deadline on, Stammer elevated his level of play, which was incredible to see,” BriseBois said. “For someone who has already earned his Hall of Fame plaque, has accomplished so much already, and has been accomplishing so much for so long, for him to play arguably the best two months of hockey of his career … at the time when our team needed it most was incredible.

“You were all able to see how he led on the ice. What is hard to see is how he also elevated his leadership game off the ice. Last summer, for various reasons, a lot of leadership left our team, and nobody in our group raised their leadership game more than Steven Stamkos did to fill that void.

“We have a saying in our organization. I think it was coined by our CEO Steve Griggs. ‘We strive for excellence with humility.’ Steven Stamkos has always represented excellence with humility and never more so than these past few months. The aim is for him to continue to play on a contending Tampa Bay Lightning team going forward.”

That was the reason BriseBois put off talks with Stamkos until after the season. He wanted every piece of information he could about the team, its needs, before going into a negotiation with such an important (and expensive) piece.

The Lightning had uncertainty around their blue line, which was meshing rookies and inexperienced players with veterans like Victor Hedman, Erik Cernak and Mikhail Sergachev. They have just $12 million of cap space for next season, with 16 players under contract, so there won’t be a lot of wiggle room.

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Still, the lack of talks couldn’t have been easy for Stamkos.

“When you don’t have control of the situation, I think you just have to come to terms with that,” Stamkos said. “For sure, there were times throughout the year when you think about those things and in private conversations with friends and family and mentors and things like that. But, for me, I tried to leave that at home and, when I came to the rink, it never crossed my mind. It was just, ‘Go out there and play and try to help our team,’ just like I’ve always done.

“I told Julien at the beginning of the year, when we said that there was going to be no contract talks, that you won’t have to worry about that affecting how I prepare or how I play or that coming into the locker room. I said what I needed to say at the beginning of the year and that was kind of it.”

Stamkos scored 40 goals this season, continuing to be the focal part of the league’s top power play. While his five-on-five defensive metrics have taken a dip, you can imagine Stamkos would have his share of suitors if he became a free agent. The Chicago Blackhawks could throw money at him to be a mentor for Connor Bedard. The Nashville Predators, playing in another no-state-income-tax state, feature good friends Ryan McDonagh and Luke Schenn. Maybe the new Utah NHL franchise wants to make a splash.

Would a three-year, $5.5 million average-annual-value deal, for example, be enough for Stamkos to sign? The two-time Rocket Richard winner took a below-market deal in 2016 ($8.5 million AAV), which set the tone for other stars in the organization. Would Stamkos accept a lower salary to stay?

“I think that has been a part of everyone’s thought process in the core group of guys that we have had here in terms of what guys have taken over the years to stay here,” Stamkos said. “I understand the tax advantage and that type of thing. (Nikita Kucherov) is making $9.5 (million). That is probably grossly underpaid in terms of what guys are getting now. (Andre Vasilevskiy). (Brayden Point) with 40 or 50 goals every year. You look at (Auston) Matthews. What did he sign for? $13.5 (million) or something? (Victor Hedman) is making under $8 million. That is grossly underpaid if you look at what he has done.

“That is what everyone has done here and that is why we have had the success and that is the way it has been for this organization. I think that that in itself is a testament to management in how they want to build a team and, first and foremost, the players for wanting to do that and accept that and allow the management to go out there and build a roster to compete for the Stanley Cup.”

Stamkos looked up to Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic growing up, with the two iconic captains spending their entire careers with one organization (Sakic moving with Quebec to Colorado). And he’s always wanted to do the same.

“When I look at Stammer, I believe he’s a Bolt for life,” teammate Brandon Hagel said. “That’s just the vibe I get from him.”

Stamkos and Hedman signed eight-year deals just days apart in the summer of 2016, with the two franchise cornerstones and best friends wanting to stick together and finish the job. Hedman is eligible to sign an extension in July, one year ahead of free agency. It wouldn’t be surprising if the two each had new deals this offseason.

“This is all we know,” Hedman said.

And Stamkos believes he can win here — again.

“I think the window is certainly open when you have some of the premier players at every position,” Stamkos said. “You look at all the teams that have won the Cup in the last five years, you talk about really good defensemen, an elite goalie, elite forwards. We have all that. You need complementary pieces, for sure, and you need some depth. Looking back, I thought guys that needed to step up, especially during that stretch of trying to make the playoffs, did. Guys are going to continue to grow.

“You look at Hagel and you look to (Nick) Paul and those guys and the roles that they’ve come into this team. You look at the back end and how many guys played their first NHL game this year. The goaltending situation. There is a lot of things that, I think as you progress, guys gained a lot from this year too. That’s what allows that to keep that window open too.”

No matter what, Stamkos will have his No. 91 sweater retired at Amalie Arena at some point. As former teammate Ryan Callahan said, there will probably be a statue in front of the arena, too. When you think of hockey in Tampa Bay, you think of Stamkos. It’s hard to imagine him playing anywhere else.

But it’s not done until there’s a contract signed.

Saying you want to sign Stamkos is one thing. Offering the kind of contract that shows it is another. And it’ll come down to what’s most important for Stamkos whether he’ll remain in his second home.

“This city means a lot,” Stamkos said. “That was my 16th season here. It’s crazy to really think about it. It certainly doesn’t feel that way from a physical or mental perspective, because I still love coming to the rink every day and I love interacting with the fans. Everything that is hockey in this city is amazing and I love it. Everyone’s been great to me and my family over the years.

“To start something from where we were my first year to where we are now, it’s almost night and day in terms of what this city and hockey mean to each other. It’s been fun to be part of that and see it all the way through and, like I said, hopefully more.”

(Photo: Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images)

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