Stamkos says break up with Lightning ‘puzzling and strange’

Of all the names moving to new places on July 1, perhaps none are more shocking than Steven Stamkos leaving Tampa Bay and heading to Nashville.

The first overall pick from 2008, one of the most lethal era-adjusted goal scorers of all-time, the captain, and a player coming off a 40-goal season was just not a priority for the Lightning to re-sign. A team known for giving long-term contracts early to its core players — which it will again reportedly do with Victor Hedman in the coming days before the defenceman heads into the final year of his contract — slow played Stamkos for a second time. In 2016, Stamkos didn’t re-up until June 29, two days before he would have become a UFA.

This time, he left the team, signing a four-year deal that comes with an $8 million AAV to join the Nashville Predators.

Joining Sportsnet’s Hockey Central panel over the phone, Stamkos was asked by Colby Armstrong: what happened here?

“To be complete honest I’ve found myself asking the same question and the more people I talk to everyone seems to share that same sentiment, which is puzzling and strange,” Stamkos said. “At the end of the day there was no question I was willing to put all that stuff aside to remain a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning.”

Right from the start this season these negotiations seemed tenuous. When training camp opened, Stamkos voiced his disappointment over the lack of any talks over the previous off-season. When last season ended, he expressed a clear desire to remain in Tampa Bay. There never appeared to be much momentum in talks as the season went on and, finally, on Day 2 of the draft this past weekend, Lightning GM Julien BriseBois confirmed there would be no deal for Stamkos before the market opened.

“We wanted it to end and retire with the Tampa Bay Lightning,” Stamkos said. “It certainly didn’t work out, but at the end of the day in order 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 move on. And that’s why it’s been so exciting for our family. Once we kinda got over that hump we kinda zeroed in on a few teams with Nashville being very high on that list and just the mutual interest from day one. How aggressive they were, how accommodating they were in terms of any questions or concerns, and it just seemed like a natural fit.”

According to Elliotte Friedman, the Lightning did make a few different attempts to keep Stamkos that were team friendly, including a long-term deal with a low AAV, and a shorter deal that would eventually lead to bonus-laden one-year contracts that Stamkos would be eligible for next summer when he turns 35.

Meantime, Tampa traded for Jake Guentzel’s negotiating rights from Carolina and signed the winger for seven years and a $9 million cap hit before free agency opened.

Now we’re going to have to get used to Stamkos in Predators colours. Nashville has been one of the busier teams on July 1, also signing Jonathan Marchessault for five years and a $5.5 million AAV and defenceman Brady Skjei for seven years and a $7 million AAV.

The Predators will be one of the most improved teams coming out of free agency on paper. Stamkos will turn the page and be a big part of a new core, but for now it’s an emotional end of an era.

“My family and I absolutely loved playing for that city and playing for the players that are there,” Stamkos said. “It just seemed like maybe not everyone thought that way. I’m a big boy, I can handle that. We went about doing our business. I thought I played extremely well this year regardless of the contract distraction.”

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