Pre-season speculation over Steven Stamkos' future with the Tampa Bay Lightning had largely flickered to embers by mid-October. However, a report linking the Lightning captain to the Calgary Flames set the rumor mill alight.
Sportsnet's Mark Spector claims Flames GM Brad Treliving is seeking a major trade to bolster his struggling club, which dropped four of its first five games. He suggests Treliving's conversation with Lightning GM Steve Yzerman was about his “obvious issues” in re-signing the 25-year-old Stamkos before he becomes an unrestricted free agent next July.
One of those issues is the belief Stamkos and head coach Jon Cooper don't see eye-to-eye. Much of that speculation originated from Toronto during last spring's playoffs, serving to ramp up conjecture that Stamkos might “come home” by joining the Maple Leafs next summer. While belief of a feud between Stamkos and Cooper still lingers among some pundits, no tangible public evidence of discord exists.
The most obvious issue is salary-cap space. Stamkos could seek a contract comparable to those of Chicago Blackhawks stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane (eight-years, $84-million, with an annual average salary of $10.5 million).
The Bolts have over $48 million invested in payroll for 2016-17. While there's sufficient room to re-sign Stamkos, a $10.5-million annual cap hit leaves limited room to re-sign other key players.
Forwards Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn and Cedric Paquette are restricted free agents next summer. In 2017, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Jonathan Drouin and Andrei Vasilevskiy are RFAs, while goaltender Ben Bishop, defenseman Victor Hedman and forward Brian Boyle become UFAs. Retaining most of these players will prove costly.
Spector suggests Stamkos would've been under contract by now if things were fine between his camp and Lightning management. He wonders if Yzerman believes Stamkos will depart via free agency and instead trade the talented sniper, rather than lose him next summer for nothing.
If so, the asking price will be expensive. Spector claims Treliving is willing to deal a top young player, like forward Sam Bennett, as part of the return for Stamkos. However, the Lightning could prefer center Sean Monahan, the Flames' “most untradeable” player.
Treliving could be inquiring about Stamkos. So could a number of other NHL GMs. Landing him via trade, especially this early in the season, is much easier said than done.
For starters, Stamkos must agree to be dealt. He has a full no-movement clause for this season, and it's difficult to imagine him waiving it to move from a Stanley Cup contender to the struggling, rebuilding Flames. If he did accept, the return to the Lightning would likely gut part of the Flames' promising future. Monahan or left wing Johnny Gaudreau, along with Bennett or a top prospect plus the Flames' 2016 first-round pick would almost certainly have to be part of it.
We also don't know what Yzerman's actual intent is at this point. He certainly doesn't have to trade Stamkos now. Indeed, it's best to wait until near the Feb. 29 trade deadline, when there will be considerably more suitors willing to pony up better offers for the superstar.
Spector believes if no one meets Yzerman's price that he'll re-sign Stamkos and then try to trade him if the two sides fail to mend fences. If so, the Lightning GM must make that move in late-June while teams still have sufficient salary-cap room and willingness to swing a major deal.
Another possibility is Yzerman re-signs Stamkos and moves one of a couple of salaried players to free up cap space to retain his other free-agent stars. Perhaps Bishop is traded or allowed to depart via free agency if Vasilevskiy proves himself ready to become a starting goalie. Maybe a taker can be found for defenseman Matt Carle and his $5.5-million cap hit, or Valtteri Filppula and Jason Garrison hit the trade block.
Whatever Yzerman does with Stamkos, the one thing he isn't doing is trading him to the Calgary Flames in an early-season deal.