By GeoFitz (@)
Between now and whenever Steven Stamkos signs on the dotted line of a Standard Player Contract that is sure to pay him a lot of money over the next seven or eight years, there will be plenty of speculation about where Steven Stamkos will land. Obviously, the Toronto Maple Leafs have been a popular speculative landing spot for the Ontario native since he was drafted. I mean, what native Toronto boy doesn’t want to go back to the Maple Leafs? You know guys like P.K. Subban. Oh… Well, Jason Spezza is pretty good and he… no, wait, he stayed in Dallas. Corey Perry? No, he stayed in Anaheim instead of coming home. Wasn’t there a story out there about Wayne Gretzky wanting to come home but the Leafs didn’t want him? At least The Great One tried.
So anyways, why not add a little more speculation to the pot? Here are my five potential landing spots for Steven Stamkos.
5. Florida Panthers
It’s a short four-hour drive from Tampa down to Sunrise. The Panthers are a team on the rise having made the playoffs and put up a valiant fight in the first round of the playoffs against the New York Islanders. It wouldn’t be as expensive for him to move his stuff down interstate to a new place in Sunrise. There’s no state income tax. He could continue to hone his golf game with the pleasant year round weather. Nor would he have to deal with snow and salt destroying his Mercedes. Frankly, I think that’s a big draw by itself.
As far as the Panthers, they have a lot of cap space, though they have some work to do on the back end. They’re not a rebuilding team and have a mixture of young established talent like Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trochek and Aaron Ekblad. They also have some veteran talent like Jaromir Jagr for another year and Jussi Jokinen. They have Roberto Luongo entrenched in goal. While he showed some signs of fatigue in the playoffs, he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down as he enters his 18th season in the NHL.
The downside for Stamkos going to Florida may be the personnel changes that they’ve made this offseason to shake things up and the fact that Florida has a lot of hole filling to do on the blue line. Outside of Aaron Ekblad and Dmitri Kulikov, they are thin and will need to add a piece or two in free agency to firm up the defensive corps. The costs of shoring up those weaknesses may make it harder for the Panthers to fit everything under the cap.
4. Buffalo Sabres
The Sabres offer a little bit different flavor from the Panthers. They’re closer to his hometown just across the border into New York. They are an up and coming team and like Florida they have a mix of young guns learning to play in the NHL and some old hands. Jack Eichel leads the way for the young guys, but he’s also joined by Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen. They also have middle-aged talent in Ryan O’Reilly, Evander Kane, and Zach Bogosian.
Their biggest problem is in goal. Robin Lehner and Linus Ullmark are both young goaltenders, but neither grabbed the reins in limited action last season. Free agency does not currently have an exciting crop of goaltenders available either, though Ben Bishop will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2016-17 season. Cam Ward, Karri Ramo, Ben Scrivens, James Reimer, and Chad Johnson are the leading names on the market. Do any of them excite you? Yeah, me either. Granted, there are some serviceable guys in there and Chad Johnson did a good job for the Sabres early in the year. But do you look at any of them and say “Yeah, that’s a guy I can win a Cup with?” Cam Ward used to be that guy and maybe he can do it one more time, but that seems like a big gamble.
Going to Buffalo has a lot of ups and downs to it. With O’Reilly and Eichel entrenched as the top two centers, would Stamkos be forced to the wing, where he does not seem to enjoy playing? Or would O’Reilly move over to make room for Stamkos? Is the team heading up quickly enough to suit him or is he looking at sitting through a third rebuild?
3. Ottawa Senators
Couldn’t leave out a Canadian franchise now, could I? Ottawa would allow Stamkos to go back to Canada while not putting himself into a pressure cooker of a media market like Toronto or Montreal. He wouldn’t be far from his home and his family would more easily be able to visit him. Plus with the more centralized location, the travel would be easier on away trips.
Ottawa has one of the premier blue line talents in the league in Erik Karlsson. Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, Bobby Ryan, or even Mika Zabinejad could make for good linemates for Stamkos and Ottawa currently lacks a franchise center. They are a little unsettled in goal with Craig Anderson and Andrew Hammond as their primary options and neither have been outstanding for long stretches.
You also can’t overlook that the Senators just hired Guy Boucher to be their head coach. Boucher’s first head coaching job was in Tampa for two and a half seasons before he was canned. He’s back in the NHL and looking to make his mark. He knows Stamkos and there were never any reports that they had a bad relationship. He could be a draw for Stamkos.
Ottawa is a little light on young talent and this would be a ‘Go For It Now’ situation. They’ve also created some salary cap issues for themselves as it is with taking on Dion Phaneuf’s long term contract while dumping some short term contract obligations. It’s very possible that they will not be able to fit Stamkos into their salary cap this year without making some trades to move salary. However, it seems clear that he could put Ottawa over the top and make them a Stanley Cup contender next season. I will say though that this is probably a Dark Horse candidate.
2. Detroit Red Wings
This one has been bubbling around for a while. The Red Wings have a storied history and a long playoff streak going. Over the past few years, they’ve shown some signs of age, but have also brought in some young talent that’s slowly working their way into bigger positions. With Pavel Datsyuk wanting to go back to Russia and the Red Wings attempting to trade his contract to someone that could take the salary cap hit for him retiring, the Red Wings would have the salary cap room to make it work.
Petr Mrazek struggled down the stretch this season, but it was probably a mistake not playing him from the beginning of the series against Tampa Bay as he played outstanding in the series, though it was too little too late. The Red Wings still have an aging Henrik Zetterberg signed for a bunch of years and they have an awfully abysmal contract in Justin Abdelkader. Their young talent in Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, and Andreas Athanasiou is starting to show their stuff in the NHL as well as having Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist in their primes. The blue line is a little less exciting with an aging Mike Green and Niklas Kronwall leading the way.
The Red Wings are looking for something to get them over the hump. It’s no longer good enough for them to just get into the playoffs. It’s time for them to make a big change to turn them back into Stanley Cup contenders, and Stamkos can put them a long step towards that. It’s either that, or strip down the roster, rebuild, and accept that their playoff streak is going to end before it gets better.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning
Did you really think the Toronto Marlies were going to be the number one spot? Please. Toronto is still in the middle of a lengthy rebuilding. They have no goalie. Their blue line is spotty at best. And they have great, young, exciting, but inexperienced forward talent. Even adding Steven Stamkos doesn’t turn Toronto into a playoff contender next season. They are at least 2 seasons from being ready to push for a Wild Card spot and likely 3 or 4 seasons from really making noise in the playoffs and maybe being Stanley Cup contenders if they can find a solution in net. You’d be wasting half of Stamkos’ contract on nothing years. And does he really want to wait through a third rebuild while also dealing with the toxic Toronto media market? Or being hounded every time he steps out of his house?
No. The Lightning is the best spot for him to be. A resurgent Jonathan Drouin on his right and a strong two-way presence in Ondrej Palat on his left would make a lethal line to go with a Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov line. Beyond their already formidable top six, they have defensively capable forwards in Valtteri Filppula, Ryan Callahan, J.T. Brown, and Brian Boyle that round out the bottom six with responsible play and just enough offensive contribution.
On the back end, Tampa has one of the most underrated, elite defensemen in the NHL in Victor Hedman. Anton Stralman makes up the other half of the SweDefenders pairing and is also criminally underrated by the national media and fans. Add into that up and comers Andrej Sustr and Slater Koekkoek as well as steady vets Jason Garrison and Braydon Coburn and you have a strong six man unit on the blue line.
And then behind all of that, is Ben Bishop. Bishop has become one of the top goaltenders in the league. He led the league in goals against average and was second in save percentage. Poor goal support and an injury riddled team in front of him kept him from having the gaudy win totals that should have gone along with his performance and likely will be the difference between him being just a Vezina Finalist and winning the trophy. He’s under contract for one more year and can walk after that if Steve Yzerman chooses not to re-sign him.
Waiting in the wings is young Russian goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. He’s already shown that he is at least an NHL average goaltender at the age of 21. He is the best goaltending prospect since Carey Price and is referred to as the “Russian Carey Price.” There’s little doubt that he can be an above average and like an elite goaltender for a long time in this league.
Beyond the current roster, the Lightning have a strong farm system that continues to churn out NHL ready talent. Signing Stamkos to a long term deal will have repercussions in the future that will lead to some current talent being traded or allowed to walk away in free agency. Prospects like Adam Erne, Brayden Point, Matt Peca, Anthony Cirelli, Tanner Richard, Joel Vermin, Anthony DeAngelo, Dominik Masin, and Adam Wilcox all show NHL potential and will work their way into the NHL lineup over the coming seasons.
The Lightning’s Stanley Cup window has only just opened. It may close a little bit sooner if Steven Stamkos stays because of the ramifications of his salary cap hit. However, for Stamkos, this may be the best opportunity he has to go for multiple Stanley Cups over the course of his next contract. And he can do it in a place that he’s familiar with, in a climate that’s comfortable and welcoming, and with a group of teammates that he has a strong bond with.
Follow me on Twitter @geofitz4