In the salary cap era, it is extremely rare that legitimate star players make it to the free agent market. It’s also very rare that high end players become unrestricted free agents in the prime of their careers. Both of these apply to Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos, making his potential entry into Friday’s opening of free agency the most highly awaited in quite some time.
Last season, Stamkos played in 77 games with the Lightning, scoring 36 goals, good for a tie for the 7th most in the NHL. He also added 28 assists for a total of 64 points which was two shy of the team lead (Nikita Kucherov had 66). Both of those represented drops from 2014-15, where he had 72 points (43-29-72) while playing all 82 contests.
Late in the year, Stamkos was diagnosed with blood clots which cost him the final few games of the regular season as well as all but Tampa Bay’s final postseason game, a loss to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins. While he was able to return, there will still be some questions as to his long-term health; is this now behind him or will it have the potential to linger or recur over the course of a long-term contract?
There’s no denying that Stamkos is among the best goal scorers in the game today and in an era where goals are at a premium, that can only stand to help Stamkos and agent Don Meehan in their quest to secure a new contract. Over the last 5 seasons, he has the second most goals in the NHL with 193, only behind Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin (224). However, Ovechkin has played in 38 more games over that span; if you break their goal totals into a goals-per-game rate, they’re nearly identical with Ovechkin at 0.615 per game and Stamkos at 0.592. Suffice it to say, he’s among the best at putting the puck in the net.
While Stamkos spent a big chunk of last year on the right wing, his natural position is center and that positional flexibility will certainly help his case as well. However, he has also made it known that he sees himself as a center and would like to return to playing that position moving forward.
To quickly sum it up, anyone with around $10MM or more in cap space or close to that amount that could use a top line sniper. If that sounds like just about every team in the league, it should, as that’s about how many will express some level of interest.
Buffalo is reportedly going to be “all in” when it comes to chasing Stamkos while Detroit now has the money to get into the bidding after shedding the retired Pavel Datsyuk’s contract over the weekend. Toronto is also likely to try to lure Stamkos to his hometown while Tampa Bay is attempting to re-sign him as well. Also, John Wawrow of AP reports that Boston and Vancouver expressed an interest in Stamkos over the weekend.
That’s only a shortlist of who will be courting Stamkos as well as more than half the league should make a pitch during the interview period between now and the opening of free agency on July 1st.
We rated Stamkos as the top unrestricted free agent in our Top 50 list and have projected a max-term contract of eight years. For that to happen, Stamkos must sign prior to the opening of free agency.
While we have him taking that deal with Tampa Bay, GM Steve Yzerman told TSN’s Frank Seravelli that a sign-and-trade option to get Stamkos his eight years while getting an asset in return is also a possibility. We think he’ll take $9MM per year – less than he could get on the open market – to stick with the Lightning but if he does get to market, a cap hit in the double digit millions per year is a very realistic possibility.