Tampa – Steven Stamkos hopes he hasn’t played his last game for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The two-time Maurice Richard Trophy winner as the NHL’s top goal scorer can become an unrestricted free agent July 1, however he reiterated Friday that he’d like to stay with the team drafted him No. 1 overall in 2008 and came within one victory of reaching the Stanley Cup Final for the second straight year.
“I certainly hope to be back. We obviously have unfinished business here,” Stamkos said a day after Tampa Bay’s 2-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final.
“This group has been unbelievable, the city has been unbelievable for me,” he added. “I can’t believe it’s been eight years already. Time flies.”
The 26-year-old center missed the first 16 games of the Lightning’s playoff run before returning to the lineup for Game 7 on Thursday night, less than two months after undergoing surgery to treat a blood clot discovered near his right collarbone.
He described the past eight weeks dealing with his health while also watching his teammates experience the highs and lows of the postseason as stressful, but not because of the uncertainty of his future.
General manager Steve Yzerman said re-signing Stamkos is one of “many priorities” for a team that also has two key veterans — defenseman Victor Hedman and goalie Ben Bishop — with one year left on their contracts and several young players who figure to be in line for significant raises in coming seasons.
“I’ve said all along we hope to sign Stammer,” the GM said, “and that hasn’t changed.”
Following last year’s run to the Stanley Cup Final, where the Lightning lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games, Yzerman said re-signing the team captain was his top priority.
Talks failed to produce before training camp and lingered into the season. The GM announced in February the team had no plans to deal Stamkos at the trade deadline, and that both sides were focused on Tampa Bay getting back to the playoffs and making another deep postseason run.
“I think both sides have done and said the right things. We’ve kept it internal, we’ve kept it professional, we’ve kept it respectful,” Stamkos said. “I don’t envision that changing in the next month.”
While the Lightning got off to a slow start and were hindered by inconsistency much of the regular season, they persevered and arguably played their best hockey of the year in the playoffs — where they only needed 10 games to get through the first two rounds against the Detroit Red Wings and New York Islanders.
Despite losing Bishop during the opening game of the Eastern Conference finals, the team rallied from a 2-1 series deficit to take a 3-2 edge before ultimately running out of gas.
“We felt this was our year,” center Brian Boyle said. “We battled through a lot of adversity. We ran into a really, really good team and they played well. We still had some chances. It’s tough to wrap your arms around right now.”
The Penguins outshot Tampa Bay in every game, pressuring Bishop’s replacement, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and having just enough success against the young goaltender to prevail in seven games.
Stamkos, who had surgery on April 4, led the Lightning with 36 goals and was second on the team in scoring with 64 points — two fewer than Nikita Kucherov (30 goals, 36 assists, 66 points) this season. One of the highlights of his year was scoring his 300th career goal on Feb. 20.
The captain said he was “extremely” proud of what the team accomplished. In addition to being without him for all but one playoff game and losing Bishop during the conference finals, the Lightning breezed through the first two rounds while defenseman Anton Stralman was recovering from a fractured left leg.
“It’s special for me to get back on the ice with these guys and this group. Such a tight group. A team that has gone through a lot this year, different types of adversity, and come through with flying colors,” Stamkos said. “It just didn’t happen (in Game 7) for whatever reason. We’re going to have to learn from this and hopefully come back stronger.”
And, he’d just as soon be a part of it if the two sides can agree on a deal.
“The last couple of years you finally begin to see that light. You still haven’t got to it, but it’s true. It’s dangling right in front of us,” Stamkos said. “When you start something, you want to finish it. I really hope that can be the case.”