Joe Henderson Columns
Lightning, Yzerman hold winning cards in Stamkos stakes
Midway through the morning Tuesday, an email popped into my phone with the header, "Lightning sign …" Could it be the white puff of pixels signaling release for a grateful nation from the Steven Stamkos contract deliberations? What a doubleheader it would have been: Stamkos' contract and Nancy Grace's "Tot Mom" rants, all relegated to yesterday's news on the same day. Alas, it was none of the above. The Lightning just wanted to make sure we knew they had signed free-agent center Trevor Smith. Now we know. Here's something else we know.When the Lightning open the season on Oct. 7 at Carolina, Stamkos will be with them. Yes, there are things that could keep him away — an act of God, an injury, or lingering effects from Post-Anthony-Coverage Syndrome. But if he's not in the Lightning lineup on opening night, it won't be because he is playing for another team. As of this writing, the Lightning and Stamkos haven't finalized a new contract to pay this 21-year-old wonder many, many millions of dollars. It hasn't been for a lack of trying, which has led to increasing conjecture that something must be amiss. What's amiss is the idea that deals like this get banged out over lunch. If you're general manager Steve Yzerman or one of Stamkos' representatives, it's probably best to make sure the language on page 12, paragraph 9, section 3 of the contract is clear before you sign the deal. So while the negotiators play their game, everyone else plays theirs. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported the Flyers may make another run at Stamkos, even after Philly said it wouldn't give him an offer sheet. The good folks in Philly seem to have a little too much time on their hands. General manager Paul Holmgren has said he expects Stamkos to re-sign with the Bolts, but the Inquirer reported the Flyers may be preparing a trade offer to the Lightning just in case things implode. Stamkos can sign an offer sheet from any team, even though it would be an act of futility. Yzerman has said repeatedly he will match it, which means Stamkos isn't going anywhere except Carolina on Oct. 7 and wherever the Bolts' schedule leads after that. Other than that, neither Yzerman nor the Lightning have said much publicly about anything. Then again, there hasn't been much to say. They didn't get far in talks with unrestricted free agent Brad Richards, who quickly took a nine-year, $60 million deal from the New York Rangers. They did get goalie Dwayne Roloson and defenseman Eric Brewer back in the fold, which is not inconsequential. They lost Simon Gagne to the Los Angeles Kings after declining his request for a multiyear contract (the Bolts offered one year), and backup goalie Mike Smith went to the Phoenix Coyotes. They replaced Smith with Mathieu Garon on a two-year deal and brought in right wing Michel Ouellet. They also signed a pair of defensemen — Matt Gilroy and Richard Petiot. But no Stamkos. As we sit here now, after five days of free agency, the Lightning aren't appreciably better or worse than they were a year ago. We can't say the same about Philadelphia, which signed Jaomir Jagr. We also have to figure Pittsburgh will elevate back to elite status, assuming the return of center Evgeni Malkin from torn knee ligaments and center Sidney Crosby from a concussion. All of this is another way of saying the Eastern Conference just got tougher. Richards will make the Rangers better. A healthy Crosby and Malkin make the Penguins better. Even at age 39, Jagr makes the Flyers better. They'll get the Stamkos deal done, but if we've learned anything about Yzerman in his one year on the job, it's that he won't be pressured into anything stupid. It would have been nice to wrap it up before free agency began on July 1, but I'm not sure the Bolts would look substantially different today if they had. Richards probably still would have signed somewhere else. Maybe there's a headline yet to be made outside of Stamkos, maybe not. No disrespect intended to Trevor Smith, but right now everyone wants a little more.