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Steven Stamkos stakes heating up as NHL suitors begin feeling-out process

All season, NHL observers waited for Steven Stamkos and the Tampa Bay Lightning to come to terms on a new contract. It never happened and it might be too late for a reunion now between the Bolts and their captain.

The NHL’s free agency interview period opened Saturday and players can sign new deals beginning Friday at noon. Stamkos, a former 60-goal scorer who is just 26 years old, is the No. 1 target of the Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs among others and this is the week that could change a franchise forever if he signs.

The Lightning and Newport Sports Management have stayed mum on the Stamkos talks for several months. The situation will reach a new level this week, although it’s uncertain if Stamkos will make visits to prospective new teams, if teams will fly to Florida to meet him and his representatives, or if talks will be held with agent Don Meehan at Newport’s offices in Mississauga, Ont.

“We talk a lot to Newport Sports,” Sabres General Manager Tim Murray said Saturday, noting that Newport is also the agency that represents Ryan O’Reilly. “The next conversation I will have with them because we’re allowed to now is just to, I guess, ask if Steven is going to be available on July 1 and would he have an interest in Buffalo? I have to ask that question. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t.”

The Toronto Star reported Sunday such an initial contact was made late Saturday with Murray introducing Meehan to Sabres owner Terry Pegula. The paper said Leafs president Brendan Shanahan and Detroit GM Ken Holland also had quick hellos with Meehan in First Niagara Center late in the NHL Draft.

The Sabres could be looking at a deal of seven years and $11-$12 million per season for Stamkos, and the biggest contract in NHL history would put a hefty strain on any team’s salary cap.

The Sabres took on an extra $3.2 million to their cap with Saturday’s trade for Florida’s Dmitry Kulikov, who checks in at $4.333 million as compared to the $1.125 million of the departed Mark Pysyk. Most Web sites show them with around $19.5 million in cap space, although the figure is likely a couple of million less than that when bonuses to entry-level players are figured in.

A big money deal to Stamkos and a long-term deal to restricted free agent Rasmus Ristolainen would bring Buffalo closer to the cap than it has been in several years, but the Sabres could conceivably be offloading a lot of money after next season.

Kulikov, captain Brian Gionta ($4.25 million) and defenseman Cody Franson ($3.325 million) will be free agents in the summer of 2017, and the Sabres would undoubtedly love the new Las Vegas franchise to claim Matt Moulson and his $5 million cap hit in next June’s expansion draft. Veteran Josh Gorges has two years left at a $3.9 million hit, while you wonder how intriguing Zach Bogosian might be to other teams at age 25, albeit at a $5.142 million hit through the 2019-20 season.

In addition to helping with Stamkos, some of those moves may be necessary in preparation for the first big deals in the careers of Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, which could in place by 2018-19.

Murray was asked point-blank Saturday if you can win in a cap system with a player making the kind of exorbitant money Stamkos will draw. He said he thinks it’s possible.

“Somebody else on your roster either has to pay the price or you have to walk away from other really good free agents,” he said. “You have to allocate your money. If you draft well and you draft players that can give you 2-2ø years under an entry-level system and he’s a real good player, that negates finding those $4 million guys that don’t allow you to pay $12 million to a certain player. You have to allocate the money, draft well, have entry-level guys.”

Stamkos wants to play center but Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper clearly thinks he’s better suited on the wing. Murray, for his part, said “only at center” when referring to what he wanted Stamkos for. The Lightning haven’t given up hope, but aren’t expected to go much higher than $9 million per season.

“We’re operating with the best interest of the club on a daily basis,” Tampa GM Steve Yzerman said here Saturday. “It’s part of the business, part of the job is to work through things. Regardless of what happens, it’s part of the business for the players, the agents, the team as well.”

The wild-card in the Stamkos Sweepstakes is clearly Detroit, which offloaded Pavel Datsyuk’s $7.5 million hit to Arizona here Friday night and can offer Stamkos a first-line chance on a winning team with a standout winger like Dylan Larkin. In addition, the Wings want to upgrade their team as they plan a move to a new downtown arena for the 2017-18 season.

Wings GM Ken Holland was coy here when asked the significance of the Datsyuk deal.

“I have to get on the market and find out,” Holland said. “How do you know? I don’t have a crystal ball. There’s 30 teams in the game. It gives us the flexibility to get in the game. I don’t know what that means until the dust settles.”

Rumors over the weekend about interest in Stamkos also eminated from places like Vancouver, Montreal, Boston and the New York Rangers. Vancouver GM Jim Benning, in fact, could be facing a tampering fine from the NHL for discussing a potential offer to Stamkos in a radio interview last week prior to the start of the free agency interview period.

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While Stamkos is their No. 1 target, the Sabres won’t be solely focused on him in free agency.

A next-tier choice would be New York Islanders winger Kyle Okposo, who had 22 goals and 42 assists last season while making $2.8 million at age 28. Former Sabres defenseman Brian Campbell, expected not to be re-signed by Florida, could be a short-term option at age 37 although most rumors have him returning to Chicago. He won a Stanley Cup there in 2010. Campbell played every game for the Panthers in his five seasons in Florida.

The Sabres also have to figure out their backup goalie situation, whether to re-sign Chad Johnson or bring in somebody else behind Robin Lehner. Johnson said at the end of the season he had hoped to be a starter but his options are dwindling and his hometown Calgary Flames, perhaps his best hope, traded for St. Louis’ Brian Elliott over the weekend.

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The NHL’s deadline to send qualifying offers to restricted free agents is Monday at 5. In addition to Ristolainen, the Sabres’ RFAs include Marcus Foligno, Zemgus Girgensons and Jake McCabe. Murray said last week the Sabres have spoken or plan to speak to all of them about extensions.

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The new class of the Hockey Hall of Fame will be announced Monday with former Sabres Dave Andreychuk and Alexander Mogilny both in their eighth years on the ballot but still among the hopefuls. Andreychuk remains a controversial snub as he had 640 career goals, most among players not yet inducted, and 1,338 points in a 23-year career. It started with the Sabres in 1982 and included his 2004 Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay, where he still works in the front office.

email: mharrington@buffnews.com