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It's fair to question any team's personnel decisions. While they're almost always going to have more information about their players than the general public, that information is often open to misinterpretation or even being ignored, and decisions are often made with other things such as bias creeping into proceedings.
This is an oft-used example here, but it was fair, for instance, to ask whether Randy Carlyle effectively running a number of good possession forwards — Nik Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski, and Clarke MacArthur to name a few — out of Toronto because he personally didn't like how they played. Likewise, it was fair to ask whether he was misusing young talents like Nazem Kadri or Jake Gardiner. The numbers all suggested that he did, and it wasn't as though the Maple Leafs were having success regardless, so again: Room for questions.
I've been thinking about that a lot lately when it comes to all this Steven Stamkos stuff. Someone's dragging their feet when it comes to getting that new extension signed, after all, or perhaps negotiations just aren't going as swimmingly as we would have expected. In the abstract, it seems like a deal that, if you're Steve Yzerman, you just rubber stamp without even thinking. This is Steven Stamkos, after all. Give him a Toews/Kane/Malkin/Subban level deal and be done with it, right? It just feels weird that he hasn't been extended, especially given all Yzerman's prudent talk of such a deal being his No. 1 priority this summer.
But then, more recently, we're also starting to see stuff about Stamkos maybe moving to the wing for this coming season, and slotting Valtteri Filppula into the middle of the ice instead. It leads one to wonder why a team with a player that the hockey world at large absolutely loves and values highly move would him away from his natural position in a contract year and so many questions swirling. This is, by the way, a position which Stamkos dominates.
If you look at his numbers since he came into the league in 2008-09, just 23 centers have played 7,500-plus minutes, so we're dealing with guys who have a lot of ice time in what's guaranteed to be high-leverage situations. Here is how Stamkos ranks among them:
That's a lot of high finishes, and I would note that he missed most of a season (lower attempts and shots totals), hasn't always had a ton of help (assist numbers), and plays super-tough competition (relative CF%) to explain away some of the ranks where you see some room for improvement and/or concern.
The center position is so important in hockey, and everything runs through it in attack; the eye test alone tells us that the number of touches or time on the puck you get at center is probably going to exceed the wing. That's why when you are asked to think of elite players in this league, the vast majority of those you pick are necessarily going to be centers. In addition, there is a perception that Stamkos is pretty good defensively, and since we know center is likewise the forward position with the most defensive responsibility, the decision to move him to wing doesn't make much apparent sense to us either. Why do you want to move that guy away from the middle of the ice in favor of Filppula, who's very good but not Stamkos-good?
In the playoffs a move to “shake things up” saw Stamkos slotted onto the wing for a good while helped break him out of that funk into which he sank. The goal drought — which extended into the playoffs — to consider here. One wonders if the Tampa braintrust considers that to have been a product of the worst run of bad luck in his career (which it almost certainly was) or a harbinger of doom about to descend on his career, but it seems they're not taking any chances.
There is, perhaps, the idea that moving Stamkos away from the middle of the ice gives him a little more freedom to unload that high-quality shot in much the same way that moving Alex Ovechkin to that side helped him get back to being a perennial 50-goal scorer. That in and of itself might be the motivation here, because Stamkos hasn't scored 50 since 2011-12. But that comes with the caveat that he scored at a roughly 50-goal pace in the lockout season (the pace of 29 in 48 is 49.5 over 82), and that he was looking to make it easily in 2013-14 when he broke his leg (a pace for 55.4 in 82). Also: The 43 he posted last year is nothing to sneeze at, because it was second in the league.
What's interesting to me is that Stamkos's usage has changed pretty dramatically under Jon Cooper, and that's not necessarily going to be reflected in the table above. He got far tougher deployment in Cooper's first full season (2013-14) in terms of both quality of competition and zone starts, but last season faced some of the easiest conditions since his rookie season.
A lot of that, one suspects, has to do with the emergence of the Triplets as a second option the team has basically never had before. Those guys were more effective than the Stamkos line at putting up points last season, and while that's not necessarily something one can reasonably expect to continue, you see why it was done last year. Ride the wave while you can and all that.
We also have to keep in mind that Cooper is an alarmingly intelligent person, and that the Lightning use a lot of numbers in their decision-making process in addition to relying on a wealth of hockey knowledge that they, like any NHL organization, are necessarily going to have on hand. They've likely weighed the cost-benefit details regarding a Stamkos move to the wing a lot more than any of us have, and this is apparently what they think is best.
But we have to keep in mind that Stamkos didn't exactly set the world on fire when he moved to right wing. Middling possession numbers, just 5-4-9 in 13 games (almost all of them against the Canadiens and Rangers; he went 0-1-1 in six against Chicago). And he was used in a secondary role, rather than primary, which he ceded to the Triplets.
So it all leads one to wonder whether Tampa values Stamkos, who turns 26 in February, as highly as everyone else apparently feels they should. That's not to suggest they wouldn't happily re-sign him, because of course they would. But if they don't see his role as being as integral to the team going forward — i.e. “Not worth $9.5 million” or something like that — then this is just a very weird time.
Again, Stamkos likely asks for a contract that not only pays him those mega dollars, but also extends him for the league-max eight years. If the Bolts are indeed growing a little less enamored of him at this point, when he's not even 26, what happens when he's 30, 32, 34 years old?
Teams are starting to get a better sense of what the cost of a standings point actually is in the NHL, and smart teams will clearly aim to stay below that level on a per-dollar basis whenever possible. If Tampa judges that Stamkos wouldn't represent any sort of discount on that number for them, well, a reticence to sign him is understandable. That's especially true because, in addition to Stamkos being a UFA next summer, the team also has to figure out a way to re-sign Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn, and Vladislav Namestnikov. Shouldn't be too hard to do that and stay below the cap.
But the summer after, the team has only six players signed for 2016-17 right now, and they're paid a combined $26.65 million, which is probably going to take up about a third of their cap number. That doesn't include whatever you give Stamkos, Kucherov, Killorn, and Namestnikov this summer, plus UFA deals for Victor Hedman (huge money) and Ben Bishop, plus RFA contracts for Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Jonathan Drouin, and Andrei Vasilievsky (who might make Bishop expendable).
And with so many young guys whom you can extend for nearly a decade at what's likely to be a decently high price point in the first place, maybe Stamkos, elite as he is, just doesn't do it for the Bolts long-term if his price doesn't come down. Sad but true. And the longer this goes without resolution, the more complicated things are going to become. It's an uncomfortable situation, sure, but this kind of worry is the price of success.
All stats via War on Ice unless otherwise stated.
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