He figures to stand out like the prettiest dress in the store when the doors fly open July 1. It’s looking more every day like Steven Stamkos will become an unrestricted free agent as he inches toward the end of his contract while the Lighting soldier into the conference finals without him.
Stamkos would be a great fit for Buffalo, no doubt. He checks all the boxes for the Sabres when it comes to talent, experience and age. He would give them a proven superstar in his prime, a true first-line center who would cause matchup problems and effectively open up ice for Ryan O’Reilly and Jack Eichel.
Never mind identifying the No. 1 center. Imagine how strong the Sabres would be down the middle when one of the aforementioned three was thrust into the No. 3 role. Or picture the trio on the power play given their willingness to pass and ability to shoot, not to mention their willingness to shoot and ability to pass.
It’s easy to forget that Stamkos is 26 years old. He’s been in the NHL for eight seasons and has scored more than 40 goals in half of them. He led the league with 51 in 2009-10 and led again two years later with 60. He had 36 goals and 64 points in 77 games this season and has averaged nearly a point a game for his career.
We know what he could do for Buffalo, but what could the Sabres do for him? Well, they check a few boxes, too. The Sabres have a collection of up-and-comers and money to throw around. His family can drive down from Markham to see him play without having to witness him get pushed through a shredder in Toronto.
It’s easy to examine the situation from a distance and consider the possibilities for both sides. But mutual attraction, assuming it exists, doesn’t always translate to successful long-term relationships. The smart move would be taking a closer look for reasons why they shouldn’t be interested in one another.
And that’s where it gets tricky.
I’m not here to make the decision for either side. I’m here to explain why the decision will be difficult for both sides. Even if the Sabres and Stamkos ultimately marry, it guarantees nothing. Relationships can fall apart in one season. It almost always comes down to value. Just ask Mario Williams.
The Sabres should think long and hard before shelling out big money for Stamkos simply because they can. His five-year deal worth $37.5 million will expire June 30. He pocketed $8 million in each of the first four seasons and $5.5 million this year. He reportedly turned down an eight-year contract worth $68 million from the Bolts.
Under the collective bargaining agreement, players can sign with their own teams for eight years but new teams for only seven. Stamkos was looking for $10 million a year, which means the Sabres would need to offer him a seven-year contract worth $70 million or more while managing a massive cap hit.
Yes, they have the cap space, which means they have the cap space today. Over the next seven years, it will get more difficult to manage when young guns like Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen start lining up for massive raises. The weakening Canadian dollar stunts revenue, thus slowing the rate of increases to the salary cap.
Be careful of what you wish for. The more Buffalo improves, the more difficult it will be to manage the roster. Stamkos needs to examine how much he values his bank account over team success and the prospects of winning a Cup in Buffalo. What looks like a fit now could be the opposite.
O’Reilly signed a seven-year deal for $52.5 million with the Sabres. Are you telling me Stamkos is worth $17.5 million more than O’Reilly over the life of their contracts? O’Reilly doesn’t put up big offensive numbers like Stamkos, but he’s a terrific faceoff man, much better defensively, tougher and a natural leader.
Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews signed twin eight-year contracts worth $84 million, giving them a league-high $10.5 million cap hit. Both deals came after they won three Stanley Cups with the Blackhawks. Anze Kopitar signed an eight-deal for $80 million after he won two Cups with the Kings.
Stamkos is looking for more money than Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, who have been two of the NHL’s best players for more than a decade. He’s a terrific player, but he’s not in the same class. Like Ovechkin, he hasn’t won a title.
Quick question: If Stamkos’ career ended today, would he make the Hall of Fame?
In eight seasons, Stamkos led his team in scoring only three times. He also finished second three times, including this year. While he’s had great seasons, he hasn’t been as dominant as many are led to believe. Perhaps that’s why Bolts GM Steve Yzerman refused to cave to Stamkos’ demands.
And that brings me back to the beginning.
The true value in players isn’t always found in big numbers. It’s often measured when he’s not in the lineup. Stamkos was sidelined with a blood clot for the first two rounds of the playoffs. Tampa Bay won eight of 10 games without him before Game One against Pittsburgh in the conference finals.
Buffalo clearly would be a better team with him. That’s a no-brainer. Tampa Bay clearly was a darned good team without him. If anything, he lost leverage during the playoffs. The Lightning could afford to lose Stamkos, but they were would be in real trouble without defenseman Victor Hedman.
How much is Stamkos worth and where does he land? It depends on which teams need him and how much they value him? It’s a question Buffalo and Toronto must answer before they start shopping. Both need Stamkos more than Tampa Bay does. We’ll see how much they’re willing to spend.