Is Steven Stamkos Staying?

For Steven Stamkos, this is the kind of summer a lot of professional athletes dream about their whole career. Imagine, being a world class hockey player and you are free to pick and choose which offer from a multitude of various team’s offers you will sign and play the next seven or eight years of your life. The flip side is a general manager’s nightmare. Your captain and top goal scorer, the guy who is the cornerstone of your franchise could very well have played his last game in your sweater.

For Steve Yzerman, the upcoming month is the last month he has Stamkos under contract. One could understand if June presents Yzerman with a lot of sleepless nights. Yzerman, if his past is any indication has and will continue to do everything within his power to lock up Stamkos for the next eight years. For Stamkos, to be less than a month from being an unrestricted free agent has to be so enticing that even if the Lightning were to back up a Brinks truck to Stamkos’ driveway before July 1st, it might not be enough for their captain to forego free agency.

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Not signing with the Lightning does not preclude Stamkos from re-signing with the Lightning after the free agency period begins. Although the likelihood that Stamkos comes back to Tampa once he heads down the free agency path decreases with each offer, it is still a possibility. It becomes a larger possibility if none of the suitors are thisclose to challenging for the Stanley Cup.

Stamkos, his agent, his inner circle all have seen over the last two years that the Lightning are on the precipice. The talent on this team combined with their youth make for a nice wide open window for success. The Lightning could be in Cup contention for the next two years, three years, five years or even possibly longer. They can make a run over the next few seasons that could put them over the top when Stamkos is considering all his potential moves.

If He Stays

The nightmare of the Stamkos’ free agency for Yzerman has a brother and that is the Lightning salary cap situation. The team already has a little over $52 million tied up with only 15 players. The NHL cap for the 2016-17 once the dust settles should be around $73 million. This leaves $21 million for Yzerman to sign Stamkos and eight other free agents.

So, let’s assume that somehow, someway that Yzerman finds a way to ink Stamkos to a long term deal. Even on the low end, with a sentimental discount, it would take about $9 million dollars. Just as Yzerman begins to wipe his brow once the ink is dry on that contract, he has to sign Nikita Kucherov to a deal.

Left with $12 million to play with, Yzerman can probably get Kucherov signed in the $6 million range. Here is where it gets tricky because he is down to $6 million and here are a few of the names that still need a deal this summer: Alex Killorn, J.T. Brown, Vlad Namestnikov, Cedric Paquette, Jonathan Marchessault, and Nikita Nesterov. This is where Yzerman gets the cold sweats.

If the team intends to keep the majority of these last six free agents, Yzerman has no choice but to cut ties with a couple of players who are performing below their current cap hits. Matt Carle and Erik Condra come to mind. If that is not possible, then a trade involving players like Valtteri Filppula or Jason Garrison could give some cap relief.

Should Yzerman want to keep the majority of the team together, he could opt to buyout Carle’s contract. This would still keep $1.83 million of Carle’s contract on the team’s salary for the next four years. In the short term, this is a lot easier to swallow than the $11 million Carle is in line for over the next two years. This move makes Carle a free agent but only saves the team roughly $3.7 million. This could however be enough to lock up the six free agents listed above. If the Lightning are going to go this route, it must notify Carle and the first buyout window closes the day before Stamkos becomes a free agent.

Now if the team decides to trade veterans like Filppula or Garrison, it could save the team a tidy sum especially if Yzerman gets future draft picks for these two. Now, the purse strings aren’t so tight and the team has some room for maneuvering. It also could provide opportunities for some of the younger players in the organization. There is little doubt that a guy like Slater Koekkoek is NHL ready right now. Buying out Carle and possibly trading Garrison opens up a slot among the defensive corps for Koekkoek.

If He Goes

Should Stamkos get an offer he cannot refuse, the Lightning fan base would be in mourning. He has been here in Tampa since he was 18 years old. Fresh faced kid with nothing but a bright future ahead. Bolts fans have been with him through the highs and lows. The broken nose in Boston. The broken leg in Boston. Come to think of it, Stamkos shouldn’t sign with Boston.

Stamkos has seen action in three conference finals and one Stanley Cup Final. Not bad for a 26 year-old who some analysts say is strictly an offensive player. Those of us who have seen him game in and game out know how much he has improved his overall game. The work this guy puts in on his checking and defensive skills have led to him being an integral part of the penalty killers for the Lightning. Not too many snipers in this league can add the PK to their resume.

If he leaves, Lightning car banners will be flown at half mast. But the fact is that Yzerman’s nightmare gets a whole lot rosier because that $21 million he has to play with can be stretched a lot further. Kucherov still gets his $6 mill or so. But then Killorn, Namestnikov, Brown and the others can be safely signed and the team would probably have a few million to add a couple of free agents.

Perhaps the biggest upside for the Lightning if Stamkos moves on to another team, will be felt next year. When the team has to deal with the free agent status of Victor Hedman, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Brian Boyle, Jonathan Drouin, Andrej Sustr, and both goalies, Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Sure it’s easy to say that things would be so good for the team cap-wise if Stamkos were to sign with another team but he is a great player. Stamkos makes a very good Lightning team, a great team. Can a team lose its leader, its captain and its best offensive player without missing a beat. Those are the thoughts that keep Yzerman up at night.