The NHL’s biggest free agent is going to have plenty of options to choose from when July 1st rolls around. Scorers capable of 50+ goals a season don’t find their way into the free agent market too often. While Stamkos may have lots of options and lots of suitors for his services, we must evaluate what Steven Stamkos is truly looking for. Is his number one priority cashing in on a big pay day? Does he want the best possible chance at hoisting a Stanley Cup as soon as possible? Obviously he’d like to find a way to get max dollar from a contending team, but it’s highly unlikely a top tier team could allocate sufficient room to sign Stamkos.
When assessing Stamkos’ free agency options, it’d be hard to not start off with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Markham Ontario native has been linked to the Maple Leafs for quite some time. The story of the hometown kid coming home and becoming the face of the historic franchise is an intriguing narrative. Would Stamkos go from a team like Tampa Bay who is already a Cup contender to a team that is in the process of developing its promising prospects and is rebuilding?
The Leafs landed the first overall pick at this year’s draft lottery. They’ll presumably select highly coveted prospect Auston Matthews. Forming a 1-2 punch with Auston Matthews could appeal to Stamkos. Not to mention the Leafs’ highly coveted prospects in William Nylander and Mitch Marner who are on the cusp of making their mark at the NHL level. The Leafs should be competitive down the road, but will they hit their peak while Stamkos is still in his prime? Stamkos is 26 and while that isn’t old by NHL standards, it might take the Leafs a bit of time to become real contenders. It could be a painful process and while the dollar that Toronto has to offer is very enticing, would the painful and grueling turn around process be worth it for Stamkos?
Looking down the list of reported suitors for Stamkos’ services, the Buffalo Sabres present a similar option to Stamkos that the Leafs offer. A young team with a promising future and a lot of cap space. Like the Leafs, the Sabres could easily present Stamkos the money he desires. Deep pocketed owner Terry Pegula has the drive and resources to essentially give Stamkos a blank check (or whatever the equivalent of that would be in this salary cap era). The Sabres would likely offer Stamkos a contract higher than Jonathan Toews’ and Patrick Kane’s twin contracts at an average annual value of $10.5 million.
Back in January, Elliotte Friedman reported the Tampa Bay’s initial offer to Stamkos was an eight-year deal with an average annual value of $8.5 million. That represents only a $1 million upgrade from his last deal. The financial gain from signing with the Sabres and skating close to his hometown makes the Sabres an appealing destination for Stamkos. The likes of Jack Eichel, Ryan O’Reilly, Sam Reinhart, Rasmus Ristolainen and company are closer to contending than the Maple Leafs. The Sabres are a step closer in their rebuilding project, which could be a deciding factor for Stamkos. The Sabres have the potential to become one of the NHL’s best in the not too distant future and could afford to give Stamkos the money he wants and deserves.
Stamkos might be reluctant to be involved with another rebuild. He was with the Lightning as they went through a rebuilding process. Would he really want to go back to building back up from square one? How large of a check would it take for him to start over again?
Stamkos wants to win. He’s a fierce competitor and his work ethic is well known around the league. It’s no coincidence he wears the C on his chest for his club. He’s accomplished plenty of personal accolades in his young NHL career. He’s hit the 50 and 60-goal plateaus and has been a consistent lethal scoring threat over the past few years. The only thing missing from his list of achievements is the most important one to a player – a Stanley Cup.
How about the Montreal Canadians? They could be Stamkos’ best option. The Canadiens endured a disappointing 2015-2016 campaign that saw them miss the playoffs while having their Vezina winning goaltender Carey Price on the shelf. This came as a surprise especially with the Canadiens coming off an Eastern Conference Finals berth in 2014-15. Adding Stamkos to the fold and a healthy Carey Price returning would certainly assert the Habs back as one of the league’s best.
The Habs’ biggest issue has been putting the puck in the net. Price has shown that he alone can drag along a relatively weak Canadiens’ squad to the Eastern Conference finals. They have promising pieces up front along with their superstar defenseman P.K Subban. The Habs have the pieces to assemble the contending team they had a mere year ago.
While there are no guarantees that Stamkos would be able to make the Canadians contenders again, the Canadiens present one of his best options to play on a contending team as soon as possible. Stamkos will likely command an excess of $10 million a year in his new contract. That’s roughly a 15% chunk of today’s salary cap. That’s a large sum that few teams could actually squeeze in comfortably. The Canadiens would still have to move some pieces around, but they are in a better position to make room for Stamkos than a lot of the other contending teams. Based on how things currently stand, they’d only have to shed a few million dollars to have room for Stamkos.
It’d be easy to close the doors on the Lightning reaching a deal with Stamkos. It may not be totally out of the cards, but it’s hard to find a situation where the two teams can agree on a dollar amount. With the Lightning competing in the playoffs without Stamkos, it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which the Lightning would be willing to give him the max dollar. They’d have to sacrifice some of their promising young talent down the road and would instantly be in a cap crunch. Stamkos is an elite and integral component to the Tampa Bay Lightning, but re-signing him could mean that the team as a whole would have a different make up down the road – one that might not make them better.
Does Stamkos want to be the league’s highest paid player and begin a rebuild? Or does he want the best chance to lift the Stanley Cup as soon as possible?
The answer will be revealed this summer.