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Drop the balloons, release the doves, fire the starter’s pistol. The Steven Stamkos sweepstakes is about to begin.
The Tampa Bay Lightning would like to retain their star captain. Stamkos is on record saying he’d like to come back and that the team has some “unfinished business” in trying to win the Stanley Cup. Both of these things have seemingly made Stamkos remaining with the Lightning something more than just a possibility.
But the financial reality of their situation is that it’s going to be impossible to keep Stamkos, pay him what the market dictates, and then hope to keep Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov, Jonathan Drouin and Victor Hedman over the next two seasons – even with Hedman being the only UFA among them. Even if the Lightning find a way to make the Matt Carle and Ryan Callahan contracts disappear, they’re still facing an uphill climb to keep the band together.
Which of course means that Stamkos could be on the move this summer.
We all know the Toronto Maple Leafs thing. Maybe he’s into it, maybe he’s not. Maybe they’re into it, maybe they’re not. Auston Matthews is a wild card in a lot of ways up there.
What if it isn’t the Leafs? The Buffalo Sabres have been called Stamkos’s top choice in the past, and they’re going to have the cap space, the ownership, the trajectory and the geography that Stamkos will find desirable. If GM Tim Murray is still into acquiring him – and he was a year ago – they’re going to be a player.
The New York Islanders? A long-shot to be sure, but the relationship between Stamkos and John Tavares off the ice has some thinking this could be an option. Plus, they have a building to fill.
As do the Detroit Red Wings, come to think of it.
Stamkos-to-Detroit isn’t anything new – please recall it was one of the fashion choices on that cover of The Hockey News recently. But now that the Pavel Datsyuk situation is starting to gain clarity, there’s a renewed focus on where Stamkos might fit with the Wings.
If Datsyuk leaves, the onus is on Holland to make the best of a tough situation and try to find a taker for Datsyuk's contract, clearing cap space. No team would have to pay the actual $5 million salary, just the hit. But even so, no lower-salaried team is going to take it without getting something in return. Chicago just had to surrender a 21-year-old high-end prospect to convince Carolina to take Bryan Bickell's contract. Carolina is one of a handful of teams that operate on the lower end of the salary cap. Arizona is another, as is Buffalo. But the Wings can expand their options if they decide to take a much lesser contract in return -- something in the $2-million range still would yield significant cap space to pursue the summer's prized free agent, forward Steven Stamkos.
Darren Dreger went to the Stamkos place too.
If the Datsyuk situation is resolved – and as the Chicago Blackhawks just showed, moving cap space is a costly proposition – then the Red Wings will have the room to take a run at him. And then like Buffalo, they’ll have the ownership, the trajectory (in theory – some good youth on that team, but no Eichel) and the geography that Stamkos will find desirable.
They’ll also have a center spot open for him, if we’re to believe that he doesn’t want to play on the wing.
They also have an arena to open in 2017, and Stamkos would be a rather nice drawing card to that end.
For whatever reason, the Red Wings haven’t been able to turn their massive war chest into prize free agents through the years – although the theory has been that the “reason” is now coaching in Toronto.
But given the chance, one imagines that GM Ken Holland and the Ilitch family could be quite convincing.
“I don’t know that Kenny Holland believes you can pay somebody $10 million-plus in a salary cap world and still do everything else you want to do around him, so maybe philosophically it doesn’t make sense.
“But I also do know that once upon a time July 1 used to be where the Detroit Red Wings – Mike Ilitch would get out and flex his financial muscle and the Wings would make a very attractive spot for any free agent because they’re such a good organization.”
We’ll find out soon.
Let the sweepstakes begin …
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