For those who have checked out for the season with the Canes playoff miss, the big news in the hockey world on Thursday was the surprising return of Steven Stamkos for game 7 versus the Pittsburgh Penguins after a long layoff due to a blood clot issue. With the Lightning’s loss to Pittsburgh on Thursday, Stamkos’ season is now over, and it also possible that he just played his last game in a Lightning jersey.
Stamkos has been news all season with his impending free agency this summer. He is obviously an elite player still in his prime and the biggest fish in the free agent waters this summer (assuming he does not get re-signed by Tampa Bay before July 1). The expectation that he will get a maximum contract north of $10 million or at least very close means that it takes some maneuvering for many teams to fit him in their salary structure. With a new set of teams looking for a shake up or jolt of talent after disappointing playoff flops, Stamkos seems to be linked to a different team every day.
It is wild speculation where Stamkos will ultimately land, so I will skip making you read about my random guess. Instead, I will come at this from a Canes angle that says where Stamkos lands could shake loose a player or 2 that might fit the Canes summer shopping needs.
Tampa Bay Lightning: If Stamkos foregoes the open market and just stays home in Tampa Bay, the Lightning’s already challenging cap issue expands. A $10 million/year contract for Stamkos would put the Lightning at about $61 million in total salary for 2016-17, but that is before re-signing Alexander Killorn, Nikita Kucherov and Cedric Paquette and importantly trying to leave room to re-sign stars Tyler Johnson, Victor Hedman, Ben Bishop and Ondrej Palat in the summer of 2017. Even if the Lightning could squeeze everyone under the cap for the 2016-17, Yzerman might choose not to because he wants to leave some slack for the even bigger challenges next summer. In addition, the Lightning’s depth that would include 9-10 good NHL forwards and 2 good goalies is problematic for the expected expansion draft next summer. I think it is reasonable to expect that if the Lightning re-sign Stamkos that Yzerman then makes the hard decision to part with at player or maybe even 2 to simultaneously collect future assets, avoid losing a player for nothing and relieve salary cap pressure.
New York Rangers: The Rangers are clearly 1 of the teams who could be looking for a mini-shake up of sorts. Cornerstone Henrik Lundqvist is not getting any younger and the 2016-17 version of the team looking nothing close to good enough in their first round ouster at the hands of the Penguins. The Rangers are salary cap-strained even before trying to add Stamkos. Much of it is probably nonsense, but in the past week I have seen articles suggesting that Rick Nash, Derek Stepan and others should be the sacrifice to make room for a run at Stamkos. A Stamkos signing at $10 million would leave the Rangers with only about $7 million of cap space, but that is before re-signing or replacing Keith Yandle, Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes. Obviously, those players or comparable replacements will not fit for $7 million. I am on record as not being a fan of Rick Nash, and I do not view J.T. Miller or Kevin Hayes as the type of offensive difference-makers that the Canes need, but if Derek Stepan or Chris Kreider became available, I would be interested.
Minnesota Wild: Minnesota is another team that has limited financial ability to do so but would seemingly like to shake things up a bit. The team has been a regular playoff entry but also a regular first round exit that has been unable to compete with the elite in the Western Conference. What they really need is a yin to go with Parise’s yang to provide more offense and another scoring line. Stamkos would obviously be an incredible centerpiece for that project. But the Wild are already at about $64 million of salary with only 8 forwards under contract (not counting AHLers on 2-way deals). To fit Stamkos would require some maneuvering to cut some cost somewhere else.
A similar story exists for many other big budget teams who might want to take a run at Steven Stamkos. There are few teams where $10 million fits into the current salary structure without making changes elsewhere.
What about Stamkos actually landing in Raleigh? It would obviously be a long shot. Stamkos will have multiple offers at or near the salary maximum, so he largely gets to pick where he wants to play and gets paid roughly the same regardless of where he goes. One would figure that he will want to go to a team that has a high chance of winning the Stanley Cup in 2016-17 and following years. The Hurricanes are an improving team, but if and when they climb into the the top tier of NHL teams is a projection not a certainty. Stamkos is only 26 years old, so some patience is possible. I guess the appeal of the Hurricanes could be the chance to join a young and growing team and help lead it to greatness just like he did in Tampa Bay and do so (if he wants that) in a smaller, non-traditional hockey market with less pressure. The second question is whether Francis could even afford him. It would be challenging, but I actually think he could. Rough math says that the Canes need to spend $15 million just to get the minimum of $55 million. Stamkos plus re-signing Rask and Murphy would use almost all of that total. Francis would still need to add a second goalie and 2-4 more forwards. I have speculated that Francis will get $5-7 million above that minimum, so it would be challenging to add a good goalie and a little more help at forward, but just maybe the organization stretches for the future.
While it is fun to think about, the odds are highly against Stamkos playing in Raleigh next season except in a road jersey. But just maybe he helps shake loose another good option to help build a scoring line.