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The Whopping Letdown of Steven Stamkos

DETROIT (CBS DETROIT) - That fizzing sound you hear is the air rushing out of Red Wings' fans.

With the announcement that Steven Stamkos will re-sign with the Tampa Bay Lightning – first reported by TSN's Bob McKenzie – the excitement in Detroit has been popped like a balloon.

The fans here were told their team had a chance to lure Stamkos to Hockeytown. They believed it.

In the end, they look like suckers.

For all they're left with is a whopping letdown, and another reminder that the Wings don't have the free-agent appeal they used to.

According to reports, Stamkos' deal is for eight years with an average annual value of $8.5 million. That's far less money than he was likely to receive on the open market, although the would-be gap in earnings is neutralized by Florida's lack of state taxes and the extra year he gets from the Lightning.

That may have lessened the allure of unrestricted free agency, but Stamkos' decision doesn't feel like one guided by financial factors. The 26-year-old center, who has come tantalizingly close to winning the Stanley Cup in recent years, signed with the team that gives him the best chance to complete that mission.

And that's why this has to sting for Wings' fans, more so than it might for fans in, say, Buffalo or Toronto. Though the Sabres and Maple Leafs were presumed to be in the running for Stamkos, they didn't have much to offer besides a lot of money and the probably-overhyped opportunity for him to play close to home. But the Wings had their history to fall back on, their time-honored tendency to compete for the Stanley Cup.

By spurning the Wings, by neglecting to even hear their pitch, Stamkos turned 'time-honored' into 'time-worn.'

There was a period, in the late '90s and early 2000s, when Detroit was the go-to destination for Cup-coveting players. The team's existing foundation of talent and its Hall of Fame coach was all GM Ken Holland needed in the way of a recruiting pitch. When guys like Dominik Hasek, Brett Hull and, later, Marian Hossa all chose to sign with the Wings – often turning down more money elsewhere – it made sense. 

Hey, he's trying to win.

Detroit's competitive reputation has waned in recent years, and it's been reflected in free agency. Stamkos isn't the first star the Wings have missed out on. But he is the biggest, without a doubt, and the most disappointing. And his decision feels like the nail in the coffin of the team's championship allure.

It wasn't that Stamkos turned the Red Wings down. It was that he didn't even meet with them.

Looking at it objectively, it's hard to blame him. Sure, it's frustrating to feel strung along (not that that was any of Stamkos' doing) and it hurts to have been dismissed so cursorily. But put the emotions aside. View this with cold eyes.

Even with the chance to make more money in Detroit, the Red Wings simply didn't stack up with the Lightning. They are an aging team led by an inexperienced coach with a good-but-not-great core beginning to take over. Their prospect pool is promising, yes, but so is Tampa Bay's. Their goalie situation is in flux, and their best player just took off for Russia.

And they haven't won a playoff series in three years.

Tampa over Detroit – never mind Toronto, Buffalo and elsewhere – was a no-brainer.

But there was still hope. There was still a growing belief that Stamkos would restate the NHL's former world order, that he would turn back the clock, that, hey, this could actually happen. The fans fed into that belief, fueled it with their own optimism. For even if it felt like a long-shot, it was fun to dream. It was perfect to envision.

Stamkos felt like an answer to the Wings' prayers. He is an elite center and a goal-scoring machine. Detroit is thin down the middle and desperate for more offense. Stamkos wasn't just a target for his name, but a target for his fit. As it turns out, the Wings will have to plug those holes someway else.

There are plenty of good alternatives to be had, and it's likely Holland will make an impact signing or two once free agency kicks off on Friday. But that's not what Wings' fans want to hear. An alternative is a consolation, like a second-place ribbon. This year, like in so many years past, they wanted the big prize.

That the Red Wings failed to reel it in – indeed, that they didn't even come close – is glaring proof that times have changed.

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