Steven Stamkos Should Take The Money And Run

The ongoing Steven Stamkos contract saga, one of the more publicized news stories in the hockey world over the last few months, took an interesting turn on Saturday when Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported that the Tampa Bay Lightning had offered their star player, and pending unrestricted free agent, a new deal worth an average annual value of $8.5 million per season.

That is, to put it lightly, a lot of money. But it is enough money for Stamkos’ liking?

While the official asking price from his camp is still not known publicly, the purported asking price that keeps coming up in rumors is an average of around $10 million to $11 million per season.

As The Hockey Writers’ own Dustin L. Nelson wrote yesterday, that sort of money would put Stamkos in very elite company, alongside Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and the newly-signed Anze Kopitar as the only players in the NHL earning more than $10 million a year. It would also be more than Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin make.

Yet, one has to seriously wonder if Stamkos is actually worth that kind of money.

Now, there should be no argument that Stamkos is a remarkably good hockey player, easily one of the sport’s best. The high-flying 25 year-old center has picked up 535 points in 540 career regular season games and is a two-time winner of the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy as the league’s leading goal-scorer.

But to put him in the same category as Toews, Kane and Kopitar? That’s a tough sell.

While Stamkos’ career points-per-game numbers are very close to Kane’s and better than Toews and Kopitar’s, he doesn’t have the same resume of success that the others can boast. Both Kane and Toews have three Stanley Cup rings as members of the Chicago Blackhawks, while Anze Kopitar has two with the Los Angeles Kings. Even though hockey is primarily a team sport, Stamkos in comparison hasn’t done himself many favors with his playoff performances. The Lightning have been to the Eastern Conference Finals twice with Stamkos, including making it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2015, but he’s only put up a combined 35 points in 48 postseason games, well below his regular season scoring pace.

Most notoriously, Stamkos was completely shut down in those same 2015 finals, failing to score a goal and only picking up one assist as the Lightning were eliminated by the Hawks in six games.

Further hampering Stamkos’ negotiating leverage, his production has actually been trending downward over the past two seasons. After five straight seasons of registering a point-per-game he only picked up 72 points in 82 games last season, and is on pace for an even worse outcome this season with just 37 points in 48 games.

At the time of this writing, Stamkos is currently tied for 33rd in NHL scoring.

Sports Illustrated recently took an incredibly detailed look at Stamkos’ trending play and came up with some scathing conclusions:

So, pretty much all of the numbers show a worrisome decline over the past two seasons. What they don’t tell us is why that decline has happened—which would provide insight into whether the decline is likely to continue. To that question we don’t have the answer. It could certainly be a function of Stamkos playing more time on the wing than in years past, or of different linemates, or the lingering effect of his nasty broken leg in late 2013, a bad fit with coach Jon Cooper’s systems, and/or a number of other possibilities.

But if you’re paying $12 million, then, regardless of what the explanation is, you’re making a very expensive bet that whatever it is that’s affecting Stamkos won’t be there next season and beyond. To be sure, Stamkos’s numbers haven’t been helped by the substitution of long-time linemate Martin St. Louis with a declining Ryan Callahan on his opposite wing and a mix of serviceable centermen (Vladislav Namestnikov, Alex Killorn, and Valtteri Filppula). But for $12 million, a guy with Stamkos’s ability should be able to score pretty much every time he sneezes, whether his linemates are Gretzky and Lemieux or the Hanson Brothers. And you wouldn’t think that some playing time on the wing would have anywhere close to the impact we’re seeing. Finally, if health is a concern, then that’s a whole other set of issues. In other words, none of the possible explanations is particularly comforting for teams that are considering blowing a huge part of their cap on a single player.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement for Stamkos’ side of negotiations. As mentioned above, he is still just 25 years old, so he conceivably has a decade or more of hockey left ahead of him, but the Lightning have to be quite concerned about where large amounts of his scoring have disappeared to.

So, where do both sides go from here?

Tampa Bay general manager Steve Yzerman just made what is, by all accounts, a fair offer of $8.5 million AAV, most likely for a duration of eight years. It’s a number that should match Stamkos’ production over that span, and additionally provides a difficult-yet-manageable cap hit for the Lightning.

The biggest question in the whole matter comes down to what Stamkos wants more: financial wealth or on-ice success?

After a surprisingly slow start to the season the Lightning have gone 8-2 in their last 10 games and are firmly back in the playoff race. With a deep, talented and young core beyond Stamkos, it’s entirely likely that the Bolts are going to be one of the league’s best teams for a long time. However, with other core players Victor Hedman, Ben Bishop and Nikita Kucherov all needing new contracts soon as well it would take some nigh-impossible salary cap juggling to fairly extend them all and lock up Stamkos at $10 million or $11 million per.

If Stamkos wants to enter free agency and chase the money at all costs then he’ll probably find at least one party that’s very, very interested in paying him that much. But to find a team that will pay him that much money while also offering him an equal or better chance at winning the Stanley Cup? That seems wildly optimistic.

The happiest medium in this whole situation, it appears, would be for Stamkos to take the most recent offer from the Lightning (or maybe negotiate a bit longer to hopefully see a slight increase, which Yzerman probably expects anyways) and sign the deal. Stamkos would still get a monster payday despite declining performance, the Lightning would get to keep their marquee player at a price that they can live with, and the two sides can collaboratively put this mess behind them and focus all of their attention on winning a Stanley Cup.

Whether the situation will actually unfold that way, however, still remains to be seen.