Dale Tallon stood on the draft floor in Minnesota two weeks ago and talked about being a fan of the game. He talked about how much he loves offense and players who can make great plays. Then the Florida Panthers GM went out and either signed or traded for Scottie Upshall, Kris Versteeg, Tomas Fleischmann, Tomas Kopecky, Sean Bergenheim, Marcel Goc and Matt Bradley in an effort to get up to the payroll floor of $48.3 million.
He also traded for Brian Campbell and signed Ed Jovanovski and shored up his goaltending by signing well-travelled veteran Jose Theodore, presumably to be his No. 1 man.
All the while, the best free agent in this year’s class sat idly by without being signed. He’s the youngest, most dynamic goal-scorer in the league today and possesses a one-timer from the circle that rivals those of Mike Bossy and Brett Hull. All Tallon, or any other GM in the league, had to do was sign Steven Stamkos to an offer sheet.
(Cue the crickets.)
By all accounts, there have been no serious overtures made to Stamkos in the 11 days since he has become a restricted free agent. The Philadelphia Flyers spoke briefly with Stamkos prior to blowing up their roster, but announced shortly after they would not be signing Stamkos to an offer sheet. (An odd bit of news to actually announce, but hey, the Flyers like to march to the beat of their own drummer.)
The Toronto Maple Leafs are screaming out for young offensive talent and had a ton of cap room July 1, but chose to either sign or trade for Tim Connolly, Matthew Lombardi, John-Michael Liles, Cody Franson and Philippe Dupuis rather than extend an offer sheet to a budding superstar who grew up in their own backyard. Even the New York Rangers, who uncharacteristically had all sorts of cap room, decided to invest their future in a 31-year-old with a history of concussion problems when they inked Brad Richards to a nine-year deal worth $60 million, with $24 million of that salary coming in the first two years of the deal. Stamkos, meanwhile, is 10 years younger than Richards and outscored him by 17 goals and 14 points last season.
The New York Islanders still need to spend more than $10 million just to get up to the floor, but no offer sheet for Stamkos. Instead, Stamkos will almost certainly re-sign with the Lightning at some point this summer on a five-year deal worth about $37 million.
According to the collective bargaining agreement, any team with enough cap room and a first round pick in each of the next four entry drafts could sign Stamkos to an offer sheet the Tampa Bay Lightning would have the right to match. The offer could have been for any number of years and could have accounted for as much as $12.86 million per season, which is 20 percent of the $64.3 million team salary cap for next season.
Why has nobody even come close to making that bold move for a player who has the potential to be the most dangerous goal-scorer in the NHL for the next decade? Some will have you believe there is a massive conspiracy of collusion at work here, that GMs around the league have a ‘nudge-nudge, wink-wink’ agreement they won’t raid each other’s rosters by poaching their best young players.
That is a very serious charge and I’m certainly not about to make it here, largely because I don’t believe it to be true. These are the same GMs who will take elements of a CBA that is supposed to help small market teams and find loopholes in it to gain a competitive advantage. I believe that if one of those GMs truly thought signing Stamkos to an offer sheet would make his team a Stanley Cup contender in the long run, he would have done it by now.
But it is curious that nobody has done it, isn’t it? After all, at the very least, the Panthers could have forced the Lightning to match the offer, which would have placed them firmly in salary cap hell and would have forced them to make moves to their roster that might have weakened them. That was the strategy the San Jose Sharks employed last summer when they signed Niklas Hjalmarsson to an offer sheet, then capitalized on the Chicago Blackhawks cap problems to sign goalie Antti Niemi.
It’s impossible to prove there’s collusion because the way the system is constructed for restricted free agents gives teams far too much ammunition in their argument. The biggest one is the team that falls victim to the offer sheet has the right to match. Which means there’s a good chance any team signing a player to an offer sheet will miss out on him and do nothing more than drive up the cost of doing business for everyone. There’s also the matter that the team has seven days to make its decision and that’s an enormous factor on July 1. The Rangers, for example, could easily argue that if they had signed Stamkos to an offer sheet, the uncertainty of the situation would have caused them to miss out on Richards and if Tampa had matched, they would have missed out on both players.
Any team that would have signed Stamkos to an offer sheet July 1 would have likely had to wait until July 8 for the situation to be resolved and by then the crop of unrestricted free agents would have been picked clean.
And finally, Tallon could argue his team is better off spreading $12 million-plus on his combination of forwards or on Campbell and Jovanovski on defense than devoting it all to one player. After all, Upshall, Versteeg, Kopecky and Bergenheim accounted for 72 goals last season and cost the Panthers $12.33 million in salary cap space, which is $500,000 less than the maximum offer they could have made to Stamkos.
So don’t blame the GMs for the fact Stamkos hasn’t been signed nearly two weeks after free agency opened. In this case, the system is designed to help teams keep their young players and in many ways, it works. Sure, the player often loses out in the end, but you always have to remember these are entry-level players who, like Stamkos, weren’t even in the NHL when the last CBA was approved by the players. It has always been easy for established players to throw them under the bus.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column.
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