It took almost three weeks, but Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman was never too worried that he might lose star centre Steven Stamkos as a restricted free agent.
"One way or another, we felt we would get him signed," Yzerman said Tuesday, after the Lightning locked up Stamkos, one of their franchise cornerstones, for the next five years at a cost of $37.5-million.
The price was always going to be between $7 and $8-million per year for a player of Stamkos's pedigree – and that's where it settled, right in between. Just 21, Stamkos led the NHL in goal-scoring two years ago with 51 and chipped in another 45 last year, the highest total in the league over that span. Stamkos is also just the sixth player in NHL history to score 100 career goals before the age of 21.
So Yzerman worked hard at getting a deal done and Stamkos, for his part, didn't want to go anywhere else. The end result was a deal that will pay Stamkos $8-million in each of its first four years and then drops down to $5.5-million in year five. That final year represents a bargain for the Lightning, given that it also buys out the first year of Stamkos's eligibility for unrestricted free agency.
"At the end of the day, it wasn't something I lost any sleep over," said Stamkos, of the negotiations that spilled into the third week of the free-agent signing period. "For me, it was trying to get a deal done in Tampa, because ultimately that's where I wanted to say. I never really even thought of looking anywhere else."
According to Stamkos, the framework of the deal had mostly been in place for a couple of weeks and the delay in announcing the signing was the result of some minor details that needed to be clarified.
Both Yzerman and Stamkos tacitly acknowledged that he might have left some dollars on the table, given the wild spending spree that followed the July 1 free agency binge. But both made a similar point – that in order to keep a competitive team around a nucleus of high-end talent, sometimes a player cannot squeeze every last dollar out of the negotiation.
"You have to look after yourself as a player, but at the same time, you have to realize what that number does from a team perspective," said Stamkos. "It made sense for both sides. I'm happy with that number and Tampa is happy with that number – and they can still go out and field a competitive team and that's something I thought was important in the process."
There had been speculation that one of Tampa's rivals might try to overpay Stamkos and sign him away with a heavily front-loaded deal that topped $10-million or more, but the offer sheet never materialized.
Philosophically, Yzerman said tendering an offer sheet in order to poach away a rival makes no sense to him because effectively what it means, in most cases, is "you're really doing the work for the other club.
"Unless you want to do something really extraordinary .... Basically, you're going to have to overpay the player in the hopes of getting the other team to not match it," said Yzerman. "Either way, I think you're just screwing up your own pay structure."
In theory, Stamkos's signing may be the template for the ongoing negotiations between the Los Angeles Kings and defenceman Drew Doughty. Stamkos was the first player selected in the 2008 entry draft; and Doughty the second. Both are represented by the same agency and both have become integral parts of their teams in the first three years of their respective careers, which is why the Lightning were obliged to give Stamkos such a big pay day so early in his career.
Under the NHL's entry-level system, Stamkos did not have arbitration rights for another two years, a mechanism that was supposed to keep the values for second contracts lower. It hasn't worked out that way, at least not for the precocious high-end talent that has emerged in the post-lockout NHL.
As for Stamkos, he spends his summers in Toronto, so he was aware of all the speculation about his future – and the rumours that he might be playing elsewhere next year.
"I was getting texts from friends and family, asking me if I was playing here or signing there," said Stamkos. "It was comical at first. It got a little annoying towards the end, but it's something that comes with the territory.
"This deal has been pretty much locked up for a couple of weeks now. It was just figuring out the small details. Definitely, I'm excited – and happy that we could finally announce it."