End of an era as Steven Stamkos leaves Lightning to join Predators


TAMPA — For the past 16 years, Steven Stamkos has been seen everywhere in Tampa Bay. From the side of Amalie Arena, to on billboards and At the bus stop, he has been the face of the Lightning franchise ever since he was anointed as the organization's savior as an 18-year-old No. 1 draft pick.

He has lifted the Stanley Cup twice, worn the C on his chest with pride and humility, and been the leading man in Lightning hockey's most glorious decade. On the ice, he was a consummate scorer; in the locker room, he was a consummate leader. He visited hospitals, he presented checks to the Ronald McDonald House, and he gave a generation of Lightning fans a superstar they were proud to call their own.

But now Stamkos, the player many believed would wear the bolt on his chest for his entire career, will play for the Predators, and he has signed a four-year contract with Nashville worth an average annual value of $8 million.

“I know it's disappointing that I was unable to agree on a contract with Steven Stamkos to keep him in the organization,” Lightning general manager Julien Brisebois said Monday evening. “I know the fans are disappointed. I know Stephen is disappointed and I'm disappointed. Like everyone else, I wanted Stamkos to stay in Tampa and finish his career with the Lightning. …

“I made the decision that if I agreed to their terms … I wouldn't be putting myself in the best position to win championships going forward. And ultimately, we make decisions that are in the best interest of the team's success.”

Over the last few days, fans have been hoping that the Lightning and their longest-tenured teammate would reconcile and come to an agreement to keep their beloved captain in Tampa Bay.

And Stamkos did just that.

There are signs of Steven Stamkos around Tampa, like this bus stop at the intersection of South Hyde Park Avenue and West Platte Street.
There are signs of Steven Stamkos around Tampa, like this bus stop at the intersection of South Hyde Park Avenue and West Platte Street. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

“It's probably been as crazy as you can imagine in terms of a roller-coaster of emotions,” Stamkos said in an interview with TSN shortly after signing with Nashville. “Obviously my family and I have a lot of amazing history in Tampa. And ultimately, we tried to make something work there and failed.”

Stamkos said he probably thought the opportunity to return was open longer than the Lightning said, but when he woke up Monday he knew he was going somewhere else.

“You have hope until the last minute and then when you don't hear anything or nothing changes, you have to be able to adapt and make a decision,” Stamkos said during his first media appearance in Nashville. “And that's the hardest thing, holding on to something that might not be able to hold you.”

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It's clear Stamkos felt disrespected by the process, starting with when BriseBois didn't hold extension discussions with him last summer, as the organization did with several of its other stars before their final seasons. And when BriseBois said he wouldn't offer Stamkos a contract until after the 2023-24 season.

“Ultimately, there was no doubt that I was willing to put all of that aside to continue being a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning,” Stamkos said in an interview with Sportsnet. “My family and I love playing for that city and playing for the players there. It seemed like maybe not everybody thought that way.

“And listen, I'm a big, big guy. We wanted to get this over with and retire as Tampa Bay Lightning (players). It obviously didn't work out, but at the end of the day, to look yourself in the mirror, you just have to be honest with yourself, know your self-worth, know what loyalty and respect means to you, and then move on.”

BriseBois has tried to keep homegrown players like Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat before, but those were unsuccessful. In Stamkos' case, the GM raised the money to make do but didn't budge from his initial offer, which was believed to be in the $3 million average annual value range.

The Lightning's 2008 first-round draft pick, Steven Stamkos, stands with (from left) team owner Oren Koules, head coach Barry Melrose, Stamkos, Irwin Novak and Craig Sher.
The Lightning's 2008 first-round draft pick, Steven Stamkos, stands with (from left) team owner Oren Koules, head coach Barry Melrose, Stamkos, Irwin Novak and Craig Sher. [ MICHAEL SPOONEYBARGER | Tampa Bay Times ]

When extension talks stalled in June, the Lightning changed their stance. At last weekend’s draft, BriseBois and Stamkos’ agent, Don Meehan, agreed it would be best for both sides to look for other dance partners.

“After the season, I knew both sides would try to work out something that was mutually beneficial to both sides,” Stamkos said during a Nashville media appearance. “I felt like I was the guy that was making a lot of concessions and that definitely came into play.”

The Lightning traded away top-salaried defenseman Mikhail Sergachev and forward Tanner Jeannot. Having accumulated cap space, BriseBois targeted one of the top pending free agents, trading for the rights to forward Jake Guentzel on Sunday and signing a seven-year deal.

BriseBois said Monday evening that efforts to extend defenseman Victor Hedman's contract as he enters the final year of his contract are “moving in the right direction.” A deal with Hedman could be announced as early as Tuesday morning.

These tough decisions could have ultimately made the Lightning a better team, but BriseBois realized that cutting ties with a fan-favorite team wasn’t worth it.

“We love our fans because they're passionate and it's that emotion that they bring to our games that is their greatest contribution,” BriseBois said. “That's why we value them so much. So I'm not going to tell them not to feel what they feel, and I understand their disappointment. I'm disappointed. We're all disappointed.”

Steven Stamkos raises the Stanley Cup amid cheers from his team after defeating the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Final in 2021.
Steven Stamkos raises the Stanley Cup amid cheers from his team after defeating the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Final in 2021. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Despite a slow start, Stamkos showed his value last season, especially when the Lightning were in danger of missing the playoffs at midseason. He stepped up his game as the team posted the NHL's third-best record in the second half. He scored 16 goals in the final 17 games, seven of them on the power play. His 19 power-play goals for the season ranked third in the NHL. Stamkos was also the Lightning's best skater in the playoffs, scoring five goals and six points in the first-round series against Florida.

Connected: SEE PHOTOS: Steven Stamkos' experience through the years with the Tampa Bay Lightning

But BriseBois has made it clear his main offseason priority is making the Lightning a better defensive team, and Stamkos has a career-worst minus-21 ratio And a decline in their 5-on-5 play left areas for improvement

Stamkos is now taking his legacy elsewhere. He is one of only three active players with 500 goals and 1,000 points, joining Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. Stamkos holds every Lightning individual career record, including goals (555), points (1,137), power-play goals (214) and games played (1,082).

“The memories I have in Tampa will outweigh any ill will or feelings I may have during this whole process, because they are temporary,” Stamkos said. “Those are emotional decisions and as time goes on, they usually go away. It's just remembering the amazing times I had as an 18-year-old kid growing up in the city where I am now, having a family, obviously winning, the fans, the city.

“Everything has been first class and these are the things you remember.”

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