How Lightning GM Handled Contract Talks With Stamkos, Hedman

TAMPA — The Lightning front office has made a habit of signing extensions to the team’s best players in the summer before they reach the final year of their contracts in recent years.

But until the day captain Steven Stamkos left the Lightning after 16 seasons, he was puzzled as to why general manager Julien Brisbois didn’t engage him in contract extension talks in the summer before his walk-on year, setting the stage for a bitter split that ended with Stamkos signing with the Predators on Monday.

“That was definitely the beginning — the beginning of the writing on the wall,” Stamkos said Monday during his Nashville debut. “You know, I didn’t quite understand why, but I didn’t ask a lot of questions and I just kept playing hard and didn’t let it get to me.”

Brisbois offered insight into his strategy Monday, saying a precedent has been set recently — especially under a fixed salary cap — for teams to force star players to play out the final year of their third contracts before discussing a fourth.

In an effort to keep their best players happy, the Lightning have a habit of signing players to temporary contracts in their second decade, then rewarding them with longer deals in their third. Starting the summer before Stamkos entered the final year of his second contract, the Lightning began trying to sign him to an extension. Then-general manager Steve Yzerman made him an offer, but the two sides couldn’t agree on a deal and Stamkos didn’t sign a third contract until two days before the free-agent market opened.

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The Lightning did the same with Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Brayden Point, completing their third contract extensions in the summer before the final season of their second deal.

But as Stamkos neared signing his fourth contract, Brisbois said the approach was different.

“If you look at the last five years, since the salary cap has kind of flattened out, players who were sure to get into the Hall of Fame on the first vote like Stephen or players who were going to get Hall of Fame consideration who were 34 or older and who were about to get their fourth contract, I think only one signed a contract a year early, and that was (Kings forward) Anze Kopitar,” Brisbois said. “The only other player I could find who signed before his previous contract was (Capitals center) Nicklas Backstrom, who signed in January right before his contract expired.

“If you look at the other players — Patrice Bergeron, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Christopher Letang, Joe Pavelski, Claude Giroud — some of them stayed with their teams and signed extensions, but it was after their contracts were up. Some of them, like Steven, ended up signing somewhere else. So the exception is Anze Kopitar… I think it’s the circumstances that are different. The salary cap has been flat for a long time, and the cash base is being allocated to younger players.”

On Tuesday, Brisbane bucked that trend with Hedman, signing him to a four-year extension to his fourth contract a year before his current deal was due to expire.

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Maybe some of it is timing.

The salary cap is up $4.5 million next season and is expected to rise another $4 million the following year. Hedman, 33, is having a strong season. His 63 assists and 76 points were the second-highest totals of his career, and his +18 rating last season was an indication that he still has a strong two-way game. Plus, great defenders are harder to replace than great scorers, especially those with size and skating ability.

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