Bond with Victor Hedman a big reason Steven Stamkos stayed with the Lightning

Steven Stamkos was an observer, not a participant, in the NHL's free-agency frenzy on Friday, and that was just fine with him.

The Tampa Bay Lightning captain, who removed himself from the unrestricted-free-agent market on Wednesday by signing an eight-year, $68 million contract to stay with the team that drafted him No. 1 overall in 2008, was able to sit back, relax and watch the madness of free agency unfold without a hint of stress.

"I definitely was interested, like any other hockey fan was, to see where guys would end up and what would happen," Stamkos told ESPN.com on Saturday. "But there was never a moment where I said, 'What if?' I think in essence that kind of solidifies the decision that I made, and I'm happy about it."

Stamkos and the Lightning -- my early pick to win the Stanley Cup next season -- have a lot to be happy about these days. Somehow they have come out of the zaniness of the 2015-16 season, when Jonathan Drouin's trade request and the lingering Stamkos contract situation fueled headlines for much of the year, looking better than ever.

Stamkos, 26, and defenseman Victor Hedman, 25 -- who signed a $63 million contract extension on Friday -- are both now locked up with eight-year deals, the 21-year-old Drouin rescinded his trade request, and the future looks oh-so-bright for the Bolts.

"This year was pretty crazy, when you think about it," Stamkos said. "I don't think anyone could have expected all that stuff to happen -- some of the stuff we had to deal with as a team and as an organization this year. But that's a testament to the ownership and the management and the players' willingness to understand the situation that we have. The situation ultimately is that we have a really, really good team that can compete for a long time now."

It's funny how it all turned out, right?

"When Jonathan took the trade request back, that was huge," Stamkos said. "We all saw what he did in the last five regular-season games and in the playoffs. Given the opportunity, the way he prepared himself for games, he was almost a new player. Sometimes you need to go through some tough, adverse times in your career to learn. He did that. He learned that at a young age, and he's going to be a stud in this league for a long time."

Stamkos and Hedman have long shared a bond.

"Victor and I are extremely close friends," Stamkos said. "We came up in this organization as 18-year-old kids. To say that we're going to be together for the long run, and on one team, that's something special. We have talked a lot throughout this process. I joke with him that sometimes I forget the time difference [with Sweden] and I'm calling him at 4 in the morning. But he's always getting back to me as quick as he can. It was extremely exciting to see him sign. A big reason why both of us stuck around is because of the relationship that we have as teammates and as friends as well."

Stamkos left mind-boggling money on the table from the likes of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, Buffalo Sabres and Detroit Red Wings to return to Tampa Bay. He put winning first. It tells you a lot about his character.

Some other free-agency news in my last blog of the season:

  • The contract that Stamkos signed on Wednesday would also become the norm a few days later, on July 1: a signing-bonus-laden deal. His eight-year, $68 million deal includes $60 million paid out in yearly signing bonuses and just $8 million in actual salary. That trend continued on Friday.

    Milan Lucic's deal with the Edmonton Oilers includes $23 million in signing bonuses and $19 million in salary. Kyle Okposo's contract with the Buffalo Sabres: $25 million in signing bonuses and $17 million in salary. Andrew Ladd's deal with the New York Islanders: $31.5 million in signing bonuses and just $7 million in salary. Loui Eriksson's contract with the Vancouver Canucks: $28 million in signing bonuses and just $8 million in salary.

    The practice is not unprecedented. David Clarkson's contract with the Leafs signed on July 1, 2013, was perhaps one of the first: His seven-year, $36.75 million deal is made up of $27.75 million in bonuses. All of these contracts are front-loaded, too.

    "These deals are structured and in line with the CBA [collective bargaining agreement]," a player agent said on Saturday. "They provide protection to the players on the back end of the contract for future events such as a lockout or buyouts."

    There's a possibility of another lockout as early as September 2020. Signing bonuses are paid out on July 1 regardless of a lockout, whereas salaries are not, so that's money in the pocket of these players even if there's a work stoppage. We also saw more than a dozen buyouts over the past 10 days. The signing bonuses are payable and outside of the buyout provision in the CBA.

    I asked NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly via email on Saturday how he felt about all this:

    "It's not the first time we have experienced this," Daly said. "It's a practice that's permitted by the CBA. I assume the clubs, agents and players all know what they are doing and are prepared to live with the results."

    Interesting answer.

  • As I tweeted about Friday, the Los Angeles Kings made one last attempt at re-signing Milan Lucic on Thursday morning, offering him an eight-year deal worth $34 million. It obviously wasn't close to the $42 million over seven years that the hulking winger got in Edmonton, but the Kings and GM Dean Lombardi value Lucic and tried one last time to reel him in, which is why they put veteran Matt Greene on buyout waivers Thursday to clear cap space. But once Lucic turned it down, the Kings decided not to buy out Greene. The Kings will now have more cap space to play with a year from now, when Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson will be restricted free agents -- and that's a very good thing. They'll need it. I'm sure Kings fans would have liked to have seen more fireworks on July 1 rather than the depth signings the club made. But believe me when I say that having salary-cap room a year from now, when the cap may barely go up, will be a blessing.

  • Speaking of Lucic, he had cut down his long list of suitors to two teams by Thursday. Outside of Edmonton, where he ended up, the only other club he was strongly considering was Montreal. And the motivating factor in considering the Canadiens was the acquisition of Shea Weber. Lucic saw the Habs in a different light once Weber was acquired Wednesday; such is the respect that many players around the league have for the former Predators captain. I'm on the record saying I feel the Predators won the trade in the long term simply because P.K. Subban is younger and has peak years ahead of him. But don't underestimate the leadership impact that Weber is going to have in Montreal. He's one of the most respected players in the NHL.

  • In the wake of acquiring Subban, the Predators were still trying to improve their team Friday. A source told me that they tried hard to acquire Eriksson and, to some degree, Ladd.

  • Two GMs had excellent weeks: Tampa's Steve Yzerman and San Jose's Doug Wilson. I can't tell you how many comments I've gotten from other GMs around the league about Yzerman's re-signing Stamkos and Hedman (and goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy). The GMs have praised the patience that Yzerman showed in sticking to the $8.5 million average annual value he offered Stamkos -- the most he felt he could offer in order to keep most of his team together moving forward -- not to mention keeping Drouin at the trade deadline. What a year for the Tampa GM. He still has to sign the likes of Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn and Vladislav Namestnikov this summer. And a year from now Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Drouin will all need new contracts. It won't be easy keeping everyone on the team, and he likely won't be able to -- a deal for goalie Ben Bishop is expected to happen within the next year -- but already, Yzerman has done the most important heavy lifting.

    Wilson, meanwhile, scored huge points in getting Mikkel Boedker for just $4 million a year on Friday. That was hands down the best value signing of July 1. The winger could have signed for more money elsewhere but wanted to join a serious contender and play again for head coach Peter DeBoer, whom he played for in junior hockey. His blazing speed on the wing is an element the Sharks needed. I also think the signing of David Schlemko will turn out to be one that people talk about next season, a real underrated puck-mover on the back end. The Sharks had a very good day.

  • In my final note, here's something too funny not to share. The first day of free agency is a crazy day. I was doing live TV for TSN all day and working my phone like a maniac, sometimes juggling a bit too much. Case in point: When it was rumored that the Kings had signed veteran defenseman Tom Gilbert, I texted Kings assistant GM and Hall of Famer Rob Blake and wrote: "Rob, have you guys signed Rob Blake?" He responded: "Might have to." Ha, that made me laugh out loud. What a brain cramp on my part -- and a witty response on his end.

    OK, folks, that's it for me this season. What a blast. Let's talk again in September, when the World Cup of Hockey on ESPN is upon us!