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Johnston: Inside the Lightning-Stamkos split — a reminder that in the NHL, business trumps brotherhood


Johnston: Inside the Lightning-Stamkos split — a reminder that in the NHL, business trumps brotherhood

At the intersection of brotherly love and cold-hearted business, the Tampa Bay Lightning found themselves separating one of the NHL’s closest, most successful and longest-running duos this week.

Victor Hedman hadn’t fully processed the reality of Steven Stamkos’ being walked into free agency while he was signing a four-year, $32 million extension with the Lightning on Tuesday.

You’ve never seen a guy so downtrodden after securing a big-ticket contract that runs into his late 30s. Hedman couldn’t even bring himself to smile.

“Obviously, it’s super sad to see your friend leave and go play somewhere else,” he said from his offseason home in Sweden.

They had played together since 2009 — appearing in more than 1,200 games apiece for the Lightning and twice kicking off the team’s Stanley Cup procession after reaching the pinnacle of the sport.

Stamkos and Hedman pushed each other through hard practices and carried their competitive nature over to the golf course whenever downtime allowed. They grew up together, attended each other’s weddings, started families and never dreamed of a day when Stamkos would be signing with the Nashville Predators while Hedman was receiving a contract with identical terms from the Lightning.

“It’s going to be hard to imagine going into our locker room and going into Amalie Arena and not seeing him on the ice,” Hedman said. “It’s going to be super, super weird.”

Truth be told, things had been a little weird between Stamkos and the Lightning’s front office for a while.

That helps explain how we arrived at a breaking point.

Stamkos still doesn’t fully understand why general manager Julien BriseBois let all of last summer pass without even broaching a discussion about a potential extension — a frustration the Lightning captain voiced publicly on the opening day of training camp in September.

Looking back after signing his own four-year $32 million deal with the Predators on Monday, Stamkos identified that as the beginning of the end.

Or, as he put it: “The start of the writing on the wall.”

Still, the sides engaged in a series of negotiations this offseason that stretched into last week. They explored several contract ranges and possibilities before ultimately focusing on a long-term deal that would keep the AAV as low as possible and preserve the club’s ability to navigate the salary cap.

BriseBois is a decisive thinker who is unafraid to make unpopular or unorthodox decisions, many of which helped build those Cup-winning teams in 2020 and 2021.

Though understanding fully who Stamkos is and how much he means to Tampa — “I will say he’s the best spokesperson maybe in the league for an organization,” BriseBois said. “He’s incredibly eloquent, authentic, honest, thoughtful, insightful” — the GM approached the contract talks with a specific view of how the next Stamkos deal had to fit into the Lightning’s overall picture and didn’t veer from it.

“Ultimately, there were scenarios and different structures and ways to put a contract together that were, I felt, in the best interests of the organization,” BriseBois said. “There were various ones that could have worked out. Steven had several contracts that could have worked for him, but ultimately there was no overlap, and that’s why we didn’t get a deal done.”

The Lightning’s best offer on an eight-year term was somewhere in the range of a $3 million average annual value — significantly less in total than Stamkos received on his four-year contract from Nashville.

Now, it’s not completely fair to compare apples to apples.

What he would have accepted to remain in Tampa and what he pursued on the open market were two different things, Stamkos said.

“When you’re in one place for a really long time, you’re always trying to make it work and stay and there’s concessions from both sides,” he said. “So that was a completely different situation from being a free agent on the open market and teams really going out of their way to show how important you’d be if you were able to be brought into their organizations.”

Stamkos was willing to give a hometown discount. But as the July 1 opening of free agency approached, he felt like he was being asked to give back more than he would receive in return.

“That’s the toughest part, is trying to hang on to something that maybe isn’t trying to hang on to you,” he lamented.

Contrast that with the way the organization treated Hedman’s situation, locking him up to a new deal a full year out from unrestricted free agency. The Lightning did the same thing with the big defenseman in 2016 after first letting Stamkos get within two days of becoming a UFA, and the organization even applied a different approach to their second NHL contracts before that.

With former GM Steve Yzerman at the helm, Stamkos’s entry-level contract was allowed to expire in 2011 even though he already had a 50-goal season under his belt, and Hedman signed an extension with seven months remaining on his.

It’s more about philosophy than anything personal: The Lightning are betting that a 6-foot-7 defenseman who skates like the wind and has played more than 20 minutes per game for 15 consecutive seasons is more difficult to replace than an elite shooter coming off a 40-goal, age-33 campaign who needs to continue producing offense to be effective.

BriseBois explained that Hedman’s situation is the exception rather than the rule, noting that most star-quality NHL players in recent years have had to wait for their fourth contract instead of signing an early extension — naming Patrice Bergeron, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Joe Pavelski and Claude Giroux as examples.

Plus Tampa Bay feels it already found its Stamkos replacement by signing Jake Guentzel to a seven-year, $63 million contract Monday. He’s five years younger than the departed captain and a noted big-game scorer who BriseBois believes will fit right into the team’s culture.

“He’s a Bolt who happened to have not been playing for the Bolts in the past,” BriseBois said. “Today we kind of remedied that.”

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Julien Brisebois moved quickly to replace Steven Stamkos’ offense when a signing became untenable. (Ron Chenoy / USA Today)

Though this wasn’t how Stamkos or the Lightning’s front office envisioned things playing out, they remained incredibly respectful while describing the circumstances that led to a split.

BriseBois lauded Stamkos as a future Hall of Famer and wished his family happiness. Stamkos expressed gratitude for how “first class” the organization and the city were to him.

“The memories that I’ve had in Tampa will trump whatever ill will or feelings I’ve had throughout this process,” Stamkos said. “Those are temporary. Those are emotional decisions, and you know as time passes those usually go away.”

What will remain unbroken is his tie to Hedman, even if only one of them will get the chance to spend his entire career with the Lightning.

“Before we’re teammates, we’re great friends, and we’re always going to be,” Hedman said. “Best-case scenario, yeah, we would have loved to finish our careers in Tampa and together. But this hockey is a business at the end of the day.”

(Top photo of Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman: Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

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