Has Steven Stamkos played his final game for the Tampa Bay Lightning? The superstar forward was on the final year of his contract and is now the biggest free agent on the market, or he at least will be when free agency opens on July 1. A player of Stamkos' caliber actually hitting the open market is rather rare, and where he decides to play could change the outlook of the the NHL. But first Tampa will have between now and July 1 to try to convince him to re-sign there.
As the season began and Stamkos remained unsigned, the Lightning faced a tough decision: trade him or risk losing him for nothing at the end of the season. At the trade deadline, Tampa elected to hold onto their star and make a run at the playoffs...only to see him miss almost the entire postseason with a blood clot in his right arm.
Now they have no Cup and no contract.
Stamkos said all the right things on Friday about wanting to remain in Tampa Bay.
Stamkos: 'I certainly hope to be back, we have unfinished business here. The city has been great for me.' #TBLightning— Michelle Gingras (@michellegingras) May 27, 2016
Stamkos: "I definitely want to stay. That hasn't changed." Still hopes something gets done with #TBLightning— Joe Smith (@TBTimes_JSmith) May 27, 2016
The problem is, he could have stopped it from getting to this point by re-signing before now. The team tried to get a deal done before the start of the season, but the two sides could not reach an agreement. Unless the Lightning were seriously lowballing him, which seems unlikely considering he was already counting $7.5 million against the cap, Stamkos could have ended the talk and the speculation by signing a deal. He would not have let it reach this point if he was not at the very least thinking about exploring his options in free agency.
But after the Lightning did so well in the playoffs, the question now is how much does the team actually need Stamkos? Tampa came within one win of reaching the Stanley Cup Finals for a second consecutive season and they did it essentially without him.
According to General Fanager, Alex Killorn, J.T. Brown, Vladislav Namestnikov, Nikita Kucherov, Cedric Paquette, Nikita Nesterov and Mattias Ohlund are all free agents this summer. Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Brian Boyle, Jonathan Drouin, Victor Hedman, Andrej Sustr, Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy are free agents at the end of next season. Several of these players (Kucherov, Johnson, Drouin) are going to be due significant raises. General manager Steve Yzerman is going to have to make some tough decisions as to who will remain on the team and he’s going to have to find the money to pay them. He will have a lot more money to play with if Stamkos leaves.
Clearly, the Lightning are a better team with Stamkos. He has become one of the top goal-scorers in the NHL and it would be crazy to suggest that they are somehow better without him. The point is, should they pay him $8, 9 maybe even 10 million per year and lose some of their young talent, or try to keep the rest of the core together after seeing how successful they were in the postseason without him?
Of course the Lighting will still look to get a deal done before July 1, but now they don’t need to be desperate. They don’t need to break the bank with an offer around $10 million per year. Now they could justify offering him a contract around $8 million per year. If he stays, great. If he walks, well, more money for the rest of the team, a team that came within one win of making the Stanley Cup Finals.
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