All is not well in Tampa Bay these days.
After a dream season a year ago, including a run to within two wins of the Stanley Cup, the Lightning are struggling. They’ve won only 14 of 30 games this season; they sit outside the playoff picture by a few points in an Eastern Conference filled with unremarkable teams.
Injuries have hurt the Triplet Line – perhaps the best trio in the NHL last season – and Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat haven’t been able to produce close to the offence they did in 2014-15.
But that’s not why the entire hockey world will be focused on Tampa when it touches down in Toronto this week.
It’s Steven Stamkos.
There’s a lot of obfuscation in this situation, as neither Stamkos nor the Lightning want his lack of a contract extension to be a distraction as the team continues to struggle on the ice. (Good luck with that.)
But the chatter behind the scenes here isn’t good.
At best, Stamkos simply disagrees with Lightning head coach Jon Cooper about being played on the wing instead of centre, a controversial switch during last year’s playoffs that is being attempted again this season.
At worst? Stamkos and the coach have an active dislike for one another. In fact, some say they rarely talk to one another – and that that’s not a unique situation in Tampa.
Two things happened in the past two weeks to escalate this beyond the point where GM Steve Yzerman can control the optics of what’s really going on.
First, he signed Cooper to a multiyear contract extension, signalling to his captain that if he wants to stay, he’ll have to play for this coach.
A few days later, Stamkos liked a tweet from TSN that had the headline: “Should the Maple Leafs pursue Stamkos?” igniting a firestorm among Greater Toronto Area fans anxious to have one of their favourite sons come play at home.
Stamkos later claimed this was an accident, but no one who knows him – and knows the difficult situation with Cooper – believes it.
This has been brewing for months, and the tough part for Yzerman is Stamkos holds the hammer. He has a full no-movement clause in the final year of his contract, meaning the Lightning may not even be able to deal him as a rental player late in the year.
Stamkos has also had a poor season by his standards: He is on pace for only 30 goals and 60 points, his lowest per-game totals since he was an 18-year-old rookie.
It is widely believed that Yzerman already investigated trading Stamkos before the no-movement clause kicked in. Prior to the draft, the Lightning were in discussions with the Buffalo Sabres about a potential deal for the second-overall pick, which they eventually used to take Jack Eichel.
Depending on who you believe – and we’re dealing with a rumour mill gone absolutely wild right now – those discussions were either very preliminary or somewhat advanced.
Those who argue they were advanced say that it was Stamkos who nixed the deal, because one condition the Sabres put on the blockbuster trade was that they had to be able to sign him to an extension.
Let’s take that talk at face value. It would have made little sense for Stamkos to negotiate a new deal under those circumstances – with only one team to work with – when he was a year away from full unrestricted free agency. If he makes it to July 1, 2016, without a new deal, he will have more than a dozen teams courting him for a record-setting contract that will almost certainly exceed the $10.5-million salary cap hit the Chicago Blackhawks gave to Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews last season.
(It’s worth noting that the Calgary Flames similarly pursued a trade for Stamkos at some point in the summer but that it didn’t get very far.)
There have been denials on much of this all around, and there will continue to be as the focus on the Lightning heats up this week when they face the Leafs.
But it increasingly looks as though the Stamkos UFA sweepstakes will happen this summer.
If he truly doesn’t want to play for Cooper anymore, all he needs to do is wait. That will be a bitter pill for the Lightning – losing a 26-year-old franchise player they drafted first overall in 2008 for nothing – but it won’t catch them by surprise.
If you put any stock in the talk around the league, that’s now the most likely outcome. The only wild card is if Stamkos will allow Yzerman to recoup some sort of asset at the trade deadline by agreeing to be a rental player.
That would have to happen relatively quickly, as the deadline is Feb. 29 – only 78 days away.
It’s either that or broker a reconciliation between player and coach, finally ending a rift that’s been dragging what should be one of the NHL’s better teams down all year.
Either way, Yzerman is running out of time.Report Typo/Error