Steven Stamkos is easily the most attractive name set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. Stamkos and Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman were unable to reach an agreement on a new contract before the trade deadline a month ago, and Yzerman elected to keep the sniper for the upcoming playoff run rather than deal him to another team as a rental.
With speculation high that Stammer is ready to move on from the team that drafted him first overall in 2008, now is a good time to look at possible landing spots for the superstar. When doing so, it’s important to keep in mind a few important factors.
First of all, there’s the salary cap. It’s not expected to go up by much this season, and that’s taking into account that the NHLPA exercizes its “escalator” option. Teams without much breathing room right now likely won’t be able to afford the $10 million cap hit that Stamkos will garner on the open market. A trade at the draft table (before Stamkos becomes a UFA) is possible, but, historically speaking, unlikely.
Secondly, there’s Stamkos himself. It’s all conjecture, but a few assumptions can be made: he wants a long/big money contract (likely maximum term of seven years), and he wants to contend within the next few years.
Now, not all of the teams on this list necessarily fit the above criteria, but there aren’t 12 teams in the NHL that do. Furthermore, all the teams that appear on this list are long shots to get Stamkos, individually. But it will likely be one of these teams in the end.
Here they are, ordered from least likely to most likely:
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12 Carolina Hurricanes
I’ll admit that it’s highly unlikely Stamkos ends up in Raleigh, but hear me out.
The Hurricanes, despite weak offensive depth, haven’t been entirely terrible for the past several seasons—they just haven’t been too good, either. But if you look closer, the ‘Canes are heading in the right direction. Their D depth features youngsters Justin Faulk, Noah Hanifin, and John Slavin, all of whom are already good enough for top four duty and 23 years old or younger.
With the departure of Eric Staal at last month’s deadline, the ‘Canes freed up a lot of cap space, not to mention a first line center slot. It could happen.
11 New Jersey Devils
The Devils are a bit of a budget team, hesitant to spend up to the cap even on a good year. But, it’s not unreasonable to expect the Devils to take a run at Stamkos, especially given the run they took at Ilya Kovalchuk back in 2011.
The Devils are a franchise in need of a jolt, and Stamkos would provide that and then some. The biggest hindrance here is that it’s unlikely that Stamkos (or anyone else) views Jersey as a contender any time in the near future.
10 Calgary Flames
I’m not buds with Stamkos, so I can’t say if he has the desire to play in a hockey-crazy Canadian market, but if he does one of the better fits would be in Calgary. The one element the Flames lack is a veteran forward who’s able to be a leader, as well as carry his fair share of the load offensively.
Stamkos would obviously fill both those voids, but cap remains a bit of an issue for the Flames, who will need to ink Johnny Gaudreau to an extension before the end of next season - not to mention find someone who can play net for them.
9 Nashville Predators
For years, Nashville simply couldn’t buy a high-end offensive player. Much like Philadelphia’s perennial inability to find a legitimate starting goalie, Nashville never had a legit no. 1 center until they landed Ryan Johansen via trade earlier this season.
A one-two punch of Stamkos/Johansen down the middle would certainly be a 180 from one year ago for this franchise, when their best center was Mike Ribeiro. The Predators are edging on contender status as well, so the timing might work out for both Music City and Stamkos.
8 Buffalo Sabres
Yes, the Sabres are a rebuilding club and probably not very high on Stamkos’s wish list. However, the team has already taken big strides in 2015-16, and they seem to have a lot of the requisite pieces in place. Stamkos would be a heck of an addition.
Of course, whenever there’s a survey asking players to rank their preferred NHL destinations, Buffalo often ends up being one of the least-preferred landing spots. Not sure if this is how Stamkos feels, but it could be the biggest hurdle for the Sabres.
7 Winnipeg Jets
It’s a little bit tough to figure out where the Jets are headed as an organization. Last season they were a playoff team, and this season they’re major players in the Auston Matthews sweepstakes. Their prospect pool is promising (KYLE CONNOR!), but they could still use the services of a bona fide no. 1 center.
Winnipeg does have the cap space to do this, although they do need to re-sign Mark Scheifele, whose entry-level contract expires at the end of the season. Winnipeg is an interesting option, but the league-wide stigma of living in Winnipeg could curtail this.
6 Detroit Red Wings
The Detroit Red Wings look to be on the brink of missing the postseason for the first time in a quarter of a century, but that doesn’t mean they’re in rebuilding mode. If the Wings do miss, I expect GM Ken Holland to do everything in his power to make sure it doesn’t happen in back-to-back years.
With Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk getting older and less effective, the need for top-line scorers in Detroit is becoming pressing. Dylan Larkin, Gustav Nyquist, and Tomas Tatar are leading a youth charge in Motor City, but Stamkos would be a pretty solid addition to that mix.
5 Boston Bruins
Of course there are cap implications with the Boston Bruins, but teams have been known to circumvent those in the past. They do have Loui Eriksson coming off the books, which gets them about halfway there.
The Bruins are still in that “win now” stage as a franchise, and Stamkos would be a pretty helpful piece in that regard. Boston is also a good hockey market with lots of history, which bodes well for them. Really, the cap is the only hurdle here.
4 Florida Panthers
What a dramatic twist this would be. Would Stammer really leave Tampa for Sunrise, a divisional foe and state rival? Well, they’ll have the money to do it, with Brian Campbell’s $7.1 million hit coming off the books at season’s end and space left as it is.
The Panthers are also, shockingly, bordering on contender territory. While most agree it’s not going to happen this year, they could transform into a legit threat within the next few years. They have a good, young core, complete with solid goaltending and a strong D corps. It could happen.
3 Montreal Canadiens
Montreal is pretty tight against the cap for next season, but with Montreal expected to have a significant roster turnover, the Canadiens remains a distinct possibility. This season was a write-off for the Habs thanks to the injury to Carey Price, but if Price starts next season healthy then all of a sudden they’re contenders again. Stamkos is also a longtime friend of P.K. Subban who could sell Montreal to his buddy.
Stamkos was a Leafs fan when he was a kid, so this would be a little sacrilegious, but that matters less and less the older you get. Most would agree that Montreal is closer to contention than the Leafs at this point, so they have that going in their favor as well.
2 Toronto Maple Leafs
Maple Leafs fans, rejoice. Yes, there is a chance (albeit ever so slight) that Stamkos makes his way to Toronto this offseason. Why wouldn’t he want to play for the team he cheered for in his youth? Well, the state of the franchise is really the only reason.
Sure, pundits agree that the Leafs are on the right track, but those same pundits agree that that’s at least two years away, if not more. Does Stamkos have the patience to wait it out? Furthermore, does Toronto want to commit to Stamkos for the term he’ll likely command given the state of their rebuild?
1 Tampa Bay Lightning
A little bit anti-climactic, sure, but I still believe that Tampa Bay has the best odds of keeping Stamkos. There’s probably a less-than 50% chance that it happens (I’d say a 30% chance or so), but those are the best odds of the bunch.
The only hurdle for Tampa is the cap. Anyone who says Stamkos isn’t happy in Tampa is only guessing, as he hasn’t said anything of the sort on record. Of course Stamkos’s expiring cap hit is $7.5 million, so they’d only need to find another $2.5 million or so to make it work. But with Nikita Kucherov currently playing out the last season of his entry level deal, and Tyler Johnson, Victor Hedman and Ondrej Palat all due for raises when their deals expire at next season's end, Tampa could have some cap trouble down the road. Realistically, it might be easier for them to waive bye-bye to Stammer.
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