As the Chicago Blackhawks and Edmonton Oilers announced that they completed a trade for Duncan Keith, one thing became very clear… fans don’t know how NHL general managers value veteran players. As a 37-year-old defenseman, Keith is no longer in his prime, but he still could be a useful top-four defenseman for the Oilers. However, given his $5.538 million cap hit for the next two seasons and the no-movement clause (NMC) which gave him the power to veto any deal, the Blackhawks had little room to negotiate this deal.
Despite this, Chicago still extracted some value from Keith without having to retain any of his salary. While a third-round pick and defenseman Caleb Jones may not have been a premium haul, it was a lot more than was expected, especially when you consider that many assumed the Blackhawks would have to give up assets or retain salary to make a move happen.
For the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Keith trade proved a few things. First, that a player will waive their no-movement clause if they are given the right situation, and second, even a contract that is considered unmovable still holds value in the NHL.
This all matters for the Lightning because of their deep cap crunch. While their use of long-term injury reserve this season has been much bemoaned, it essentially allowed them to delay difficult player trades until the 2021 offseason. However, with the season coming to an end and the Stanley Cup parade wrapping up, it’s now time for general manager Julien BriseBois to start those impossibly hard conversations.
One such conversation involves the Lightning’s long-time captain Steven Stamkos. Trading Stamkos wouldn’t be a move that is done lightly, as he has been a face of the franchise for the better part of the last decade. However, given where the team is at right now, BriseBois has to look at every option to clear cap space for the future.
Why the Lightning Would Trade Stamkos in 2021
Whenever you have a star player like Stamkos, there will always be an omnipresent conversation surrounding them. While he has been the target of trade speculation for years, the 2021 offseason may be the first time he is actually movable for the Lightning. This is not to say anything about his play on the ice, as he scored 17 goals and 34 points in just 38 games played during the 2020-21 regular season, but due to the structure of his contract.
Now that he is entering year six of his eight-year, $8.5 million per year contract, Stamkos will get paid less than his cap hit. In 2021-22, his actual salary will be $7.5 million and in 2022-23 and 2023-24, it will be $6.5 million. While it isn’t a huge decrease, it’s still a discount in actual money for a team to payout.
This goes deeper, however, since Stamkos’ contract is weighed down by signing bonuses which are distributed on July 1st, meaning that $6.5 million of his $7.5 million salary for 2021-22 has already been paid by the Lightning. Therefore, if another team acquires him this season, they would only pay him $1 million in base salary for this season and would owe him a $5.5 million signing bonus on July 1st for the next two years, along with the remaining $1 million base salary.
Given that the NHL has taken a revenue hit due to the pandemic and limited capacity over the last two seasons, adding a superstar scoring talent with a relatively small actual payout in 2021-22 should make Stamkos an appealing target for the right franchise.
Stamkos Has Value As a Leader and a Scorer
Another reality exposed by the Blackhawks-Oilers trade is that NHL general managers value experience and pedigree more than armchair GMs. Few players can match what Keith brings to a locker room, which was important to Edmonton and made him have more value.
This also makes Stamkos appealing as he has won two Stanley Cups while playing two completely different roles for Tampa Bay. In 2020, he spent two months living in a bubble and acting as the emotional center for the Lightning despite only playing 2:47 seconds of hockey. In 2021, he was a contributing member on the ice, posting 18 points in 23 games.
Stamkos is more than his on-ice production. Even when he isn’t able to score a goal every night, he understands what it means to be a leader in the locker room, and he is the sort of player that any competitive team would love to add to their roster for those gut-check moments in the postseason.
Lightning Have a Limited Window to Deal Stamkos
If BriseBois decides to move Stamkos while he can still fetch a positive return on the trade market, then the final hurdle in this process is the Seattle Kraken expansion draft. While he may be willing to waive his NMC to be traded to a team of his choice, regardless of where he ends up, that clause also means he will need to be protected.
So, while the Lightning may want to trade Stamkos as soon as possible to free up a spot on their protected list, this might diminish his value in a rush deal before July 17 when rosters are frozen ahead of the July 22 expansion draft. The Lightning will likely have to protect him and then try to make a move before the entry-level draft on July 23 to get maximum value, as teams may be more willing to move picks because of the general uncertainty around this draft.
What all this amounts to is that the window to trade a player like Stamkos this offseason for a positive return is smaller than one would hope, which further complicates an already difficult situation.
So, to pull off a positive-value trade, the Lightning will need to find a team with cap space available that is looking for an aging superstar scorer and locker-room leader who can convince Stamkos to waive his NMC and wants to pay said superstar less than his actual cap hit.
With all that in mind, it seems almost impossible that Stamkos will be traded this offseason, especially for good value. However, despite this uncertainty, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that a move could be made if the Lightning find a perfect trade partner. That list is likely short, but after seeing the Keith trade go down this week, I can guarantee that there is at least one team out there who would be willing to make that deal. So, while I wouldn’t bet on a move this offseason, I also wouldn’t be shocked if something happened between the expansion draft on the 21 and the entry draft on the 23.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.