Now that the Tampa Bay Lightning have been eliminated in the Eastern Conference Final versus the Pittsburgh Penguins, speculation continues as to which team Steven Stamkos will be playing for next season.
The Toronto media has been pushing a strong narrative of their local Markham boy returning home on July 1st, the beginning of Unrestricted Free Agency. While I concur that this is a possibility, I am not buying it.
The Leafs are still in their beginning stage of their re-build. Auston Matthews will certainly be drafted first overall with the number one pick in the NHL Entry Draft. This will give the Leafs a key building block franchise player to build its team around.
Adding Steven Stamkos who is 26 years old and in his prime and already a franchise player, would significantly speed up the Leafs re-build. I have no doubt the Leafs will do everything they can to sign Stamkos on July 1st.
But what is Steven Stamkos thinking? Why would he even want to leave Tampa Bay? Great place to live, no state taxes, perennial Stanley Cup contender....Is money the issue?
Bolts GM Steve Yzerman has his work cut out for him. He must decide exactly which players are his core going forward.
I believe Yzerman will emulate the current Chicago Blackhawks model. The Hawks are built around a nucleus core group of Toews, Kane, Hossa, Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson and Crawford. Everything else are interchangeable parts and can be replaced.
Similarly, I envision Yzerman building his core consisting of Stamkos, Johnson, Kucherov, Drouin, Hedman, Stralman and Bishop.
In today's Cap world, a GM has to be flexible to succeed for the short and long term. Does Yzerman re-sign Ben Bishop long term? Does he trade Bishop and go with Vasilevsky as his #1 goalie?
Franchise #1 defenseman Victor Hedman will be a UFA next summer likely averaging $9 million a season ala PK Subban.
What about Kucherov? Does Yzerman sign him to a bridge deal? Or does he lock him up long term now? Other key players will have to be re-signed eventually as well. Players such as Killorn, Palat, Drouin, Johnson, Namesnikov, Paquette...
Part of the Toronto media narrative is that because of all these players who Yzerman will have to pay, means that there is no way UFA Steven Stamkos can be re-signed by Tampa.
Yzerman's last offer was for an average of $8.5 million per season. Most hockey fans believe Stamkos will get much more than this on the open market. The Leafs can offer league max with its plethora of Cap space.
We can bet other teams will get in on the frenzy of trying to convince Stamkos to sign with them. Teams like Buffalo, Detroit, Islanders, Montreal just to name a few.
Just because Stamkos has not re-signed with Tampa doesn't mean he will not re-sign with them before or on July 1st.
One question I have is...how strong is the relationship between the GM and player? Is this a real issue? What about the coach and the player? We recall John Cooper moving Stamkos to wing during last year's playoffs.
Stamkos being the consumate professional that he is, never gave us anything to say he was or wasn't happy about that situation.
Stamkos has already made tens of millions of dollars in his career. So I don't believe money will be his primary deciding point on which team he chooses to sign with. The offers will be comparable.
Yzerman will likely try to sell Stamkos on taking the 'Detroit Discount' to stay on a perennial Cup contender like the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Yzerman played for a Red Wings team which operated under the 'Nicklas Lidstrom Salary Cap.' It's basically 'take less now to win more later by having better players around you.' Perhaps he believes that Stamkos will do the same although he would essentially be Lidstrom in this case.
This is the way I see it...Stamkos wants to stay in Tampa Bay. Yzerman wants him to stay and remain the captain to lead his team to winning the Stanley Cup. Tampa's window to win is NOW. They are set up beautifully for the next 4-5 years to try and win one or maybe even 2 Stanley Cups. Why would Stamkos want to leave?
If Yzerman makes a competitive offer of say $9.5 million AAV per season on an 8 year front loaded deal, I believe he stays. I believe Stamkos is willing to leave a bit (not a lot) of money on the table to stay in Tampa Bay. Now if Yzerman offers the 8.5 million AAV he did a few months ago, I would say he walks and signs with the Leafs.
I do believe it is a two horse race between Tampa and Toronto. I do believe he wants to compete for Stanley Cups. But if he can't stay in Tampa, then I believe he does go back home to Toronto and be part of a long term re-build and hope he can be part of an eventual Cup contender.
So how does Yzerman keep Stamkos and his other core players? I believe he will sacrifice other mid level players who are too expensive. I believe he will trade players such as Filppula, Callahan, Boyle, Coburn, Garrison, Sustr or Carle. Some are harder to move than others.
Going forward, I believe it will be these players who will be traded in order to free up cap space so the core guys like Stamkos can be retained. I'm not saying I expect these 7 players all to be traded at once, but I do believe this is the plan which Yzerman will employ.
Vasilevsky will likely not be traded until next summer unless a team like Calgary comes calling and offers a high draft picK for him. Or if push comes to shove then perhaps it's Ben Bishop who will be traded.
At the end of the day, I can't see Yzerman being known as the GM who lost his Franchise player for nothing. It would look bad if Yzerman receives no assets for Steven Stamkos.
In the end, I see Steven Stamkos leading his team to winning a Stanley Cup. I believe it will be in Tampa Bay. Not Toronto, Buffalo, Detroit or anywhere else.