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COMMENTARY

No offense to Sabres, Leafs or Wings but Tampa remained Stamkos' best chance to win

So there we have it. The Big Fish is staying in his home pool.

There will be no wild celebration in Buffalo or Detroit on Friday and no civic holiday in Toronto either. Steven Stamkos isn't going anywhere.

And he's made the right decision.

The word came down Wednesday afternoon that Stamkos is staying with the Tampa Bay Lightning on what TSN reported is an eight-year, $68 million deal -- meaning an average annual value of $8.5 million. And that means he took quite a discount from the likelihood of a deal of $11-$12 million annually he would have gotten from the Sabres or Maple Leafs.

The Stamkos news came as part of one of the most hectic half hours in recent hockey history: First, the Edmonton Oilers traded former No. 1 overall pick Taylor Hall to New Jersey in a straight-up deal for defenseman Adam Larsson. Then came a blockbuster swap of defensemen with the Montreal Canadiens completely losing their minds in this view by sending P.K. Subban to Nashville for Shea Weber.

That's a wow and a double-wow, as Rick Jeanneret might say. Then came the big news from TSN insider Bob McKenzie: Stamkos is staying. Wowza.

Sabres fans might be disappointed. You'd figure the folks in Detroit feel the same way. The betting here is people in Toronto are crushed. The Stamkos to the Leafs talk has been going on for a year or more, with everyone knowing his free agency was looming.

Word broke earlier Wednesday that Stamkos' meeting this week with the Leafs included Toronto mayor John Tory and the CEO of Canadian Tire, who was ostensibly talking about an endorsement deal. That's a full-court press, maybe even past the NHL's "parameters of a deal" clause during the free agency interview period.

The Lightning had three big advantages over the Sabres and Leafs: They're a winning team right now, there's no state income tax in Florida and they were the only team allowed by the CBA to offer an eight-year deal. That $11 million or $12 million per year goes away pretty quickly in New York and Ontario compared to $8.5 million in Florida.

Tampa Bay was two wins away from the Stanley Cup last year and one win away from returning to the final this year -- with Stamkos missing every game of the playoffs except for Game Seven of the Eastern Conference final in Pittsburgh. If his goal is a real shot at the Stanley Cup, why would he leave?

And at $8.5 million per year, that gives the Lightning a much better chance to still retain some of their other core players who will come up for negotiations like Victor Hedman and Nikita Kucherov.

The feeling here is that the Sabres and Leafs are both going to win, that both could be playoff teams within the next 2-3 years and maybe even sooner. But Stamkos is 26 and at the prime of his career. If he's chasing the Cup, he had to stay because the Lightning are winners right now.

If he was chasing the payday, he would have left. It's clear he's not and I never believed he was that kind of player.

The losers are the NHL Players Association and the league's television partners. The NHLPA certainly would have liked to have seen Stamkos go past the $10.5 million AAV deals that Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews got in Chicago, and the triumvirate of TSN, Sportsnet and the NHL Network just lost a huge piece of drama for Friday's free agent frenzy programming.

The Stamkos Derby was a dangerous play for the Sabres, pushing them up close to the salary cap this year while they still have to sign Rasmus Ristolainen and other restricted free agents like Marcus Foligno, and requiring a lot of moves next offseason to free up the space to someday pay the likes of Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart.

Buffalo can move on to perhaps a Kyle Okposo-type player who would come in at less money and less term than Stamkos. And the Sabres can really put the full-court press on with Hobey Baker winner Jimmy Vesey, whose rights they own exclusively until Aug. 15.

The Sabres like Okposo but there's no shortage of teams who also do.  Okposo just became the top free-agent forward on the market and there will be plenty of suitors. Newsday listed Florida, Winnipeg, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Minnesota and Detroit as possibilities in addition to the Sabres. He's not going to be cheap, in that $5-6 million a year range, but that's no issue for Buffalo.

Even though Stamkos isn't coming, it's good to see the Sabres were a legitimate player in this. They were right there, prepared to make Stamkos the highest-paid player in the history of the NHL. That's heady stuff, nothing to ignore when looking to the future. Terry Pegula and Tim Murray have made it clear they are going full-bore at winning a Stanley Cup. Sometimes, they may go too far. In this case, they had to go for the big move with what would have been the biggest free-agent signee the league has ever seen.

But like the Sabres, things might work out better for Toronto to not blow all of its money on Stamkos too and make another run on a local product next summer.

Islanders center John Tavares, the No. 1 overall choice in 2009, would be an unrestricted free agent. And Toronto will be deeper into its rebuild to make a run at a player who would certainly be a key guy and who might be looking to leave. The Islanders have a less than happy situation in Brooklyn, with most of their players still living in Nassau County and needing long train rides to games.

As for the Lightning, Stamkos stays and they thus keep their place as a favorite in the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference. July 1 just got a whole lot less snazzy. #StamkosWatch is over.

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