With NHL teams growing more reluctant to let their top young talent reach free agency, huge free agent signings are becoming less frequent every summer. That trend is likely to change in 2016 though, as Steven Stamkos, Anze Kopitar, and Eric Staal are all still without contracts, while Stamkos and Staal in particular are expected to test the market given their tremendous earning potential.
Stamkos, of course, is the biggest prize of that free agent class and is expected to receive a contract comparable to the ones received by Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane last year. Given his desire to test the market and his massive future salary, it appears unlikely that his current team, Tampa Bay, will be able to secure his services long-term.
The Lightning currently sit sixth in the Atlantic Division and have surprisingly struggled to score goals 38 games into the season. Neither of those are positive indicators about the direction the team is headed, and General Manager Steve Yzerman will have some difficult decisions to make as the season continues to progress.
He made one statement move this week by sending star prospect Jonathan Drouin down to the AHL to see more ice time and continue his development, but demoting an offensive player like Drouin won’t solve the team’s scoring problem. The move did increase the pressure on underperforming players like Val Filppula, Ryan Callahan, and Tyler Johnson though. Those three combined for 65 goals last season but have scored just 12 times total around the midpoint of this season.
Injuries to Johnson and winger Ondrej Palat haven’t helped the cause, but more consistent production is needed from players making as much money as those forwards are.
This brings me to another interesting point about the outlook for Tampa Bay moving forward. While I have previously written about how Tampa has the potential to be the next NHL dynasty after Chicago, they are about to be in a brutal salary cap situation during the summer of 2016.
Leading scorer Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn, Vladislav Namestnikov, Braydon Coburn, and of course Stamkos will all be free agents this summer, and Tampa lacks the cap space needed to re-sign all of these key players. That isn’t too surprising when the large cap hits of aging veterans like Callahan, Filppula, Matt Carle, and Jason Garrison are all considered.
So if you’ve been following along you’d understand that Tampa Bay isn’t winning games, has key young players to sign with limited cap space, and could have their best player walk for nothing as a free agent. While some within the Lightning organization remain confident that Stamkos will return to the only team he’s known as a pro, I am far less convinced. After all, having a generational talent like Stamkos return home to the biggest hockey market in the world (Toronto) just sounds too good to be true for the star center.
|Patrick Kane||RW||$10.5 Million|
|Jonathan Toews||C||$10.5 Million|
|Alex Ovechkin||LW||$9.54 Million|
|Evgeni Malkin||C||$9.50 Million|
|P.K. Subban||D||$9.00 Million|
(The largest cap hits in the NHL right now)
So what can be done for Tampa Bay to both save their season, and preserve their future? Well they can start by trading Stamkos. Even if he’s open to returning to the Lightning this offseason, the resources in New York and Toronto will likely drive the yearly value of his contract up around the $12 million mark – a contract that would set modern-day NHL records.
Additionally, the team would still have to re-sign Kucherov (who might draw a contract similar to the one received by Brandon Saad given his level of production) and have to deal with the hefty contracts of their previously mentioned veterans. The solution? Why not try to swing a mega-deal with a team like Nashville where the Predators receive the offense of Stamkos and one of Tampa’s bad contracts in exchange for roster players and prospects. For a team tired of finishing second to the Blackhawks in the Western Conference like Nashville, taking on the extra contract in order to acquire a talent like Stamkos might be worth it. Yzerman benefits by clearing future cap space, gaining assets for Stamkos, and perhaps sparking his offense with the addition of a roster player like Craig Smith along the way.
Bold? Yes. Risky? Undoubtedly. But it’s beginning to look like crunch-time for Yzerman and his staff, and swinging a deal like this might be the only way to preserve the team’s success moving forwards.