After writing a broader article about the draft and front part of the off-season including player additions, a quick check of hockey Twitter now officially on the day of the 2020 NHL Draft yielded this…
A big reason for moving ???? is to be able to sign those young RFAs. Notably absent from untouchable list is captain Steven Stamkos. That doesn’t guarantee Stamkos will be dealt but it’s within realm of possibility though his health could obviously be a factor.
— Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) October 6, 2020
Targeting the single greatest single slot for potential gain
I am on record as not just saying, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” to every big name that hits the market. I have already hard passed on Patrik Laine and almost by default on the ever popular “look shiny things” deals that consider trading out of an incredible contract and core player in Brett Pesce to do a sideways deal to add a comparable level forward.
But I am also on record as saying that the single biggest area for a difference-making trade for the Hurricanes is to add a bona fide catalyst/scoring C2. The Hurricanes finally have a legitimate first scoring line really need a second line to have the depth and balance to beat good teams in the playoffs especially in road games where the opponent dictates match ups. Evidence suggests that Don Waddell knows this and has the same focus. The tried Necas as a center as a rookie to start the 2018-19 season as a trial and probably just to gauge how close he might be. (He has the skill set, and I think he could be the answer, but his NHL debut and his struggles in other areas of the game suggested it might take awhile.) Attempt two was adding Erik Haula who was later jettisoned for a third attempt adding Vincent Trocheck. If the Canes do not find their way into a big deal like this, Trocheck will no doubt get more time to fill that role, and it is very possible that he is an adequate even if not top-tier answer. He did not produce in this role in a short regular season stint and then a short playoff stint, but it is too early to make a final declaration on Trocheck.
There is always a case for patience. Vincent Trocheck is already in-house and could be the answer with a fresh start under hopefully somewhat more normal circumstances in 2020-21. Martin Necas might be a full year or two out and is not a sure thing to be able to make the transition back to center but does have a high ceiling if he does move back to center successfully. But I am also on record as saying that the time is now for the Hurricanes. Some talk as if the team is a couple years out, but based on consecutive playoff berths, some modest playoff success and a team that is maturing, I really think now is as good of a time as any to go for it within reason. I wrote about that in some detail HERE.
If one buys my argument that the Hurricanes are within reach of challenging for the Stanley Cup, I think you have to at least consider high-end options to address what I deemed the area for potentially the greatest gain.
Steven Stamkos and where he fits into the Hurricanes lineup
Steven Stamkos fits exactly that slot as a scoring/catalyst C2. One rap on him might be age and recent injury history. For age, he is 30 years old which is at least the front end of being concerned. But his point totals have been greater than a point per game in each of the last seasons. He had 66 points in 57 games in 2019-20 and an even better 98 points in 82 games in 2018-19. At least based on recent production, he looks nothing like an aging veteran who is slowing down.
As a center who leans somewhat toward shoot and score over playmaking, he could be a perfect complement. He is a capable trigger man on the power play and finisher that the Canes need even if not in the form of another wing.
With Stamkos in tow, the Hurricanes would have two legitimate first line centers in Aho and Stamkos and two first-line capable wings in Teravainen and still growing Svechnikov to fill out four out of six slots on two top-tier scoring lines. With those four players as a starting point, filling in a couple more complementary players becomes easier.
Financial fit for the Hurricanes
The four years remaining on his contract might be the perfect balance to get some term for what will be high trade price without taking on a number of dangerous years contract-wise. That four years also lines up well with what seems to be a window time with core players Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen all under contract and Andrei Svechnikov’s next contract pretty certain to span that same term even if it is medium-term deal. So netting it out, his four-year term is arguably the perfect balance between term and age risk.
The financials also offer a significant bonus. Stamkos’ salary cap hit is $8.5 million per year. That will create salary cap challenges, I think that amount is in the upper end of the range of what is workable assuming that the Hurricanes next trade Vincent Trocheck (in a different deal) to clear the slot. Stamkos $8.5 million would be only a $3.75 million increase.
And on top of that the details of Stamkos’ contract offers a significant bonus in terms of out of pocket costs. $8.5 million of the $9.5 million owed to Stamkos for the 2020-21 season was a signing bonus that should already have been paid. Combine that with a front-loaded contract and the average out of pocket cost for the four years remaining on Stamkos’ contract is a meager $5.38 million per year which is a nice savings for the bottom line.
Why it makes sense for the Tampa Bay Lightning?
At a superficial level, people might ask why the Lightning would consider trading Stamkos.
1) The team has to do something pretty significant to stay under the salary cap for 2020-21 and going forward.
2) They just won the Stanley Cup playing without him in the playoffs except a one-game cameo appearance.
The potential exists for the Lightning to make things work at least for 2020-21 via a series of smaller deals, but there are challenges with that approach. First, in a summer when offloading salary cap could be challenging with the flat cap, it will be hard to unload players whose production does not match their contract. Related to that, that type of deal is not likely to yield a return. The result is a tough task to clear salary but also doing so in a way that likely leaves holes in the lineup.
Trading Stamkos and his $8.5 million salary cap hit could make things work in a single deal and importantly also return a couple decent or better NHL roster players who can fill slots on the cheap.
So what is the deal?
Tampa Bay’s first ask probably starts with Brett Pesce who would add a legitimate top 4 defenseman in the prime of his career at a salary cap savings of $4.5 million to Stamkos’ salary. This might sound strange, but assuming this deal also requires significant other parts, I am still inclined to stick to my guns and keep Pesce and the underappreciated value of his contract even if Stamkos is at stake.
But two things play in the Canes favor in trying to do a deal for less. First, Stamkos has a no-trade clause, so he is not likely signing off on a team that has limited to chance to win soon. Second, with the flat salary cap, there are not a lot of teams that can fit his contract without sending similar salary back which defeats the purpose for Tampa Bay.
So I think the offer from the Canes is something like Martin Necas, Haydn Fleury and also a depth player, prospect or draft pick(s). Martin Necas gives the Lightning a 21-year old NHLer who scored 16 goals in 2019-20 and should grow from there and even possibly a replacement scoring center sometime down the road. Significantly, Necas’ salary is less than $1 million for 2020-21 which is the last year of his entry-level deal. Haydn Fleury gives the Lightning another young roster NHLer who again helps with the salary cap issues. Fleury is a restricted free agent whose next contract should come in at less than $2 million per year. Add in some additional value in the form of a draft pick, prospect of depth player and the Lightning get a return that matches what they need most (cap relief and young depth players with favorable contracts). The net is that the Lightning save about $6 million in salary cap despite being plus one roster player for 2020-21.
Ideally, the Lightning would probably rather get a top-tier player back and would also prefer to ship Stamkos to the Western Conference. But again, they have to do something and the combination of the flat cap and Stamkos’ no-trade cause could limit options.
Trading Martin Necas is what makes this deal hard. He is only 21 years old and still has every bit of his NHL upside intact as a skilled scoring forward. But I think the Holy Grail for Necas has always been that he grows to become the second scoring center/offensive catalyst that the Hurricanes need. Necas might get there; he might never make it back to center. Even if he does make it, timing could be a couple years down the road when the Canes window has partly passed. Meanwhile, Steven Stamkos is without question a top-tier scoring center.
I lean toward waiting for youth to develop, but the chance to add a true difference-maker is where I move more aggressively and even add to a deal to make a run at a Stanley Cup.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What are your thoughts on the possibility of adding Steven Stamkos even if it costs a lot? Do you think it is far-fetched that he gets dealt?
2) What are your thoughts on giving up Necas, Fleury and a pick or prospect to get a deal done? Do you think that is enough in a tight market? Would you do it?