The Lightning are taking a big risk retaining Steven Stamkos through the trade deadline. Now they have to go all the way with that risk and try to improve their team in the short term.
If the Tampa Bay Lightning are all in…they better be all in.
They made a resounding statement Monday when GM Steve Yzerman announced captain Steven Stamkos, hockey’s most talked-about free agent to be, would not be traded before the Feb. 29 deadline. Retaining ‘Stammer’ obviously buys the Bolts more time to negotiate a new long-term contract with their star – and to improve on the lowball offer they reportedly made, which would’ve paid Stamkos $8.5 million annually. To anyone believing Tampa still has a shot to retain him, Monday’s news is reason for hope.
More importantly, though, standing pat on Stamkos gives Tampa the best chance possible to compete for and win the Stanley Cup this June. Whatever great return Stamkos might have netted in a trade, it’s doubtful that package would’ve made the Bolts better in the short term. Stamkos allows the Lightning to be the best Lightning right this second. He’s like an unrestricted free agent rental they just acquired without surrendering assets.
Yzerman has absolutely sent the right message here. He has a win-now franchise with a nice blend of young, ascending talent and veterans in their primes. He has largely kept intact a team good enough to win 14 playoff games last year. That same team hasn’t been 100 percent healthy at any point this season, really, yet it’s stayed competitive in the Eastern Conference. The Bolts are almost completely mended now, just waiting on the return of Jason Garrison and the day-to-day Vlad Namestnikov. So it’s not unreasonable to say we haven’t even seen the best version of this team yet in 2015-16 and that we likely will over the rest of the season, especially with the Stamkos distraction removed. Tampa Bay remains one of the league’s best possession teams if you peruse the Corsi stats at war-on-ice.com, too, so its winning tendencies under coach Jon Cooper are still in place.
The East will be anyone’s for the taking this spring, especially on the Atlantic side of the bracket. Tampa Bay is tied for the final wild-card spot but is just eight points back of Florida for the division lead with two games in hand.
So the stage is set for the Lightning to peak at the right time and become a playoff sleeper team. That’s great news. That said, the franchise has entered extremely risky territory with Stamkos’ future wide open.
Sure, Yzerman may know something we don’t. The two sides may be closer than we realize to hammering out a deal, and announcing that Stamkos won’t be traded might have solely been intended to remove all the microphones from his face. Maybe we’ll get an announcement before the season is up that Stamkos has re-upped for the max term of eight years. Or maybe the two sides will strike an 11th-hour deal after the season. It’s all possible if you view the glass as half full.
But the circumstantial evidence suggests a Stamkos reunion is more of a long shot than a certainty. As one prominent agent suggested to me earlier this season, it’s a red flag when a star UFA still doesn’t have a deal with less than half a season to go. It’s not a guarantee he leaves, as we’ve seen Anze Kopitar sign recently, but it’s not a great harbinger. Yzerman also has the following free agents to re-sign over the next two summers: Namestnikov, Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Victor Hedman, Ben Bishop, Alex Killorn and Andrei Vasilevskiy, just to name the most prominent ones. It might simply be bad business to re-sign Stamkos, so there’s reason to believe he’s a goner.
And let’s say the Bolts know they can’t retain Stamkos or they at least agree it’s a tall order. That means they’ve indeed taken a massive risk for the sake of pursuing a Cup. And if that’s the case, it’s time to dig their heels in and do everything in their power to field a playoff juggernaut.
That should mean putting pride aside and getting a useful and immediate return for Jonathan Drouin, who is cooling his heels awaiting a trade after deciding he didn’t want to risk injury with AHL Syracuse. Should the priority still be to guarantee 100 cents on the dollar for the disgruntled prospect, no matter how long it takes? If we accept Yzerman might lose Stamkos this summer, Yzerman should work to move Drouin by the Feb. 29 deadline. You know it’s only a matter of time before you deal Drouin, so why not do it in time to help this year’s must-win roster? Trading Drouin could help the Bolts address some important team needs. That includes a right-shooting defenseman and a physical veteran forward. Heck, depending on what the market offers in the next two weeks and depending on cap space, Yzerman should entertain deals involving picks and prospects, too. Unless Stamkos is closer to signing than we know, Yzerman’s message is that he will risk everything to win this year. OK, then. If that’s true, the risks shouldn’t stop with Stamkos.
Yzerman and the Bolts have made a bold decision, and that doesn’t mean it’s a bad one. It’s an admirable stance. It’s inspiring to see a team committed to winning when it knows it has a chance. But it’s time to follow through all the way on that commitment.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin