In Stamkos we trust
The Tampa Bay Lightning won the Eastern Conference Finals and reached the Stanley Cup Finals in the 2014-15 NHL season. They reached almost the same mountaintop again in 2015-16, losing in seven games in the East Finals to the eventual champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins. This latter playoff run was made almost exclusively without the services of Tampa Bay’s best offensive player: center Steven Stamkos.
Stamkos went down on the final day of March, right before the commencement of the 2016 postseason, with a serious blood clot injury. He needed surgery to remove the clot. There didn’t appear to be any worry about his long-term future because of this situation, but his short-term impact was completely up in the air. Stamkos found himself on a perpetual injury report with a never-ending status of day-to-day. Despite technically being always just a day away from a return to playoff action in the hopes of helping his team reach another Stanley Cup, Stamkos didn’t make it back onto the ice until that final game, Game 7 of the conference finals. He played under 12 minutes, failing to record a point but managed two shots on goal. The team was eliminated as he attempted to find his figurative sea legs. He simply ran out of time in his attempt to get back to 100 percent in time to help his team advance to back-to-back cups.
That injury uncertainty, along with the fact that he went into this most recent season without a contract extension from the Lightning, left a big question pending for the offseason. Would Stamkos leave Tampa Bay once he entered free agency?
Perhaps he would be looking for a bigger deal elsewhere, or simply a change of scenery. Perhaps he would desire playing in a bigger hockey market or moving back to Canada to play for a team close to his home town. Everything was on the table, except Stamkos never even officially reached free agency. Instead, the day before unrestricted free agency opened to the league, he and the Lightning agreed to a brand new, eight-year, $68 million contract.
The sum was smaller than folks assumed he could have gotten on the free market; perhaps considerably so. But Stamkos said in his conference call after the signing that it wasn’t about getting the most money possible. He continued, “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.” Good for him and good for the Tampa Bay organization, because it is certainly set up to have another year vying for the championship.
Stamkos returns, joining an already potent offensive attack. The Lightning also return the meat of what was one of the premiere defensive teams in hockey last year, led by goaltender Ben Bishop. They finished the regular season ranked fifth in the NHL in goals against and seventh in penalty kill. Yet another run with Stamkos obviously breeds much more excitement than goal prevention ever could.
The former number-one overall pick from the 2008 NHL Draft already has two 50-goal seasons and two Richard Trophies under his belt. Call him an unheralded star though. Somehow, the team’s biggest weapon flies under the radar. Tampa Bay has become known for its 6’7” goalie and its triplets line. Missing nearly an entire postseason run doesn’t help that lack of publicity, but coming back to make more runs to the Finals with this group will keep Stamkos among the elite players in this league.