The Tampa Bay Lightning are successful because they have a deep and talented roster, but at the foundation of that is Steven Stamkos. He’s one of the best players in the league today, which makes the fact that he might actually enter the season without a contract a huge issue.
To say that his situation is the Lightning’s biggest question would be insufficient because there are multiple angles to consider. The most immediate is why he hasn’t already signed.
Extending Stamkos was Lightning GM Steve Yzerman’s clear top priority going into the summer. Stamkos’ agent Don Meehan did caution back in July that there wasn’t “any criteria on timing at this point,” but that was over a month ago. Now the question is if he’s going to enter training camp without a deal and if so, why. At that point it would become a big and constant distraction hanging over the Lightning and the longer he remained unsigned from there, scenarios that at one time were dismissed as implausible will start to look realistic.
For example, can Tampa Bay really afford to let a player of Stamkos’ caliber walk as an unrestricted free agent? If they don’t have a deal in place by the trade deadline, would the Lightning actually move him less than a year removed from reaching the Stanley Cup Final? It might seem extreme, but that’s the direction the conservation heads in.
Of course, that’s only one scenario. Stamkos might still sign in August, killing that kind of speculation before it really takes off. However, even if there was a 100% guarantee that Stamkos would re-sign with the Lightning, this situation would still be their biggest question mark because there’s another factor in play: How much will he cost?
Stamkos has earned the right to become one of the league’s top paid players, if not the leader in that regard. However, the Lightning have a quite a few other noteworthy players that will need to be re-signed over the next couple of years, including Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Victor Hedman, and goaltenders Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy. The bigger Stamkos’ contract is, the harder it will be to keep that group intact.
In other words, even if Stamkos re-signing is very probable, if he decides to hold out for the most lucrative possible contract, then his decision could lead to the Lightning losing one or more other important pieces.