At the end of the the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs Tampa Bay Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman acknowledged that re-signing 2016 unrestricted Free Agent Steven Stamkos to a new long-term deal was his first and foremost priority. Now, nearly six months since having chased after hockeys greatest prize, the heralded Eastern Conference favourite Tampa Bay Lightning sit fifth in the Atlantic Division, two points out of the playoff picture, while franchise centre, and forty-plus goal scorer, Steven Stamkos remains unsigned. TSN’s Dave Hodge recently wrote a piece about the importance of concluding the Stamkos contract quickly, however, with Stamkos likely to command in excess of $10.5 million next season, Mr. Yzerman undoubtably has some reasonable concerns about committing ~15% of his entire payroll to one player. In the end, Mr. Yzerman will have to make a decision on whether a team built around elite and expensive talent can be a constant Stanley Cup contender, or is having a more well-balanced and rounded roster more likely to yield long-term team success.
When looking for examples of teams who have achieved sustained long-term success while having significant payroll commitments to select players one needn’t look further than the Chicago Blackhawks, who have ~53% of their salary cap committed to their top five earning players (Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Brent Seabrook & Duncan Keith). This core group of Blackhawks have led the team to Stanley Cup titles in 2010, 2013 & 2015 and have clearly demonstrated the ability of star-laden teams to achieve significant long-term success, however, there is a catch. Over these years the Blackhawks, due to their salary cap constraints, have had to jettison talented players such as Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Brian Campbell, and Antti Nemi after 2010; David Bolland and Michael Frolik after 2013; and Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp, and Johnny Oduya after 2015. The returns on these players allowed the Blackhawks to re-tool between championships by bringing in young, inexpensive players, prospects, and picks that would fill the holes left by the departures of these talented assets. While that sounds all well and good it is easier said than done. As shown by the Pittsburgh Penguins, who won the Stanley Cup in 2009. Pittsburgh, who commits 57% of the salary cap to their top five earning players (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Kris Letang & Marc-Andre Fleury), has failed to return to the Stanley Cup finals since the 2009 season, and their inability, at times, to dress a full lineup has demonstrated the concerns General Managers have about committing too much of their salary cap to a select few start players. The difference between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Pittsburgh Penguins, and a defining factor in their differing levels of success, is their ability to re-tool and acquire young talent to fill the remaining spots on their roster. Chicago has been able to add players like Marco Dano, Teuvo Teravainen, and Scott Darling who have all, at times, played significant roles on the Blackhawks, while earning less than $1.5 million against the cap. Finding players who can provide adorable depth, likely on entry-level contracts, while still providing contributions to a team's lineup has been a hallmark of successful teams with significant cap commitments.
Committing around 15% of the salary cap to one player, especially while having key contributors such as Tyler Johnson, Andrej Palat, Jonathan Drouin, Victor Hedman, and Andrei Vasilevskiy due for new contracts in 2017-2018, will have as serious implications on the future of the Tampa Bay Lightning, just as letting Stamkos walk in free-agency or trading him at the deadline would. While the return for a Stamkos trade could return the pieces necessary to win a championship, Mr. Yzerman needs to consider if those pieces are already in place. Had the Lightning been atop the Atlantic Division at this moment, as they were projected to be, the decision may have been made for Mr. Yzerman, however, with doubts creeping in the picture, the pressure is only continuing to build for a decision to be made.
I personally believe this decision will go down to the trade deadline. Provided that Stamkos is willing to re-sign, it makes the most sense for Mr. Yzerman to wait as long as possible to evaluate what he has in his current roster. Additionally, teams will likely provide the highest rate of return closer to the deadline, in an effort to bolster their roster for a chance to win a Stanley Cup, so it makes sense for Mr. Yzerman to be patient. That being said, an elite goal scorer is a valuable commodity, one could expect a potential return to be significantly greater than the 1st and 3rd Round Pick, Nick Spaling, and prospects Kasperi Kapanen and Scott Harrington that the Toronto Maple Leafs netted for Phil Kessel. Additionally, should a trade occur, it would be interesting to see if the Lightning attempt a ‘trade and re-sign’ similar to what the Leafs did with Daniel Winnik, trading Winnik for a 2nd and 4th Round Pick, as well as Zach Sill, and then re-signing Daniel Winnik in following summer. While this has never been done with such a high-profile player, nor by a team expected to compete for the Stanley Cup, it is an option that should be considered by the Tampa Bay front-office. While I expect Steven Stamkos to re-sign with the Tampa Bay Lightning, provided that there is no rift between the player and team, unknown to the public, this could go down to the wire. Stamkos is a franchise player, and likely a driving factor in ticket sales which provides off-ice benefits to the club in addition to his prowess on the ice. As well, trading a player like Stamkos from a team expected to compete for a championship mayeffectively close the window for a Stanley Cup for this core of Lightning, and demoralize a team and fanbase after such a successful year last season. However, as the trade deadline inches closer, the situation between the two parties will continue to be interesting to those following the situation.