Steven Stamkos: Can the Lightning Really Afford to Keep Their Star Free Agent?

JC De La TorreAnalyst IIIJuly 7, 2011

Stamkos (center) enjoys a celebration with his teammates
Stamkos (center) enjoys a celebration with his teammatesJustin K. Aller/Getty Images

Well, what a difference a week makes. A week ago I was slaving away at the day job, fully expecting Steven Stamkos to be signed, sealed and delivered before the free agency period opened.

The next, I'm on a beach in Manasota Key, Florida, Steven Stamkos is still unsigned and rumors abound that the Lightning are struggling to strike a deal with their 21-year-old superstar forward.

Let's address the lunacy first.

Are the Lightning financially unable to come up with the money to pay Stamkos?

Absolutely not. That may have been the case a couple years ago but now with billionaire and passionate hockey owner Jeff Vinik in charge, the Lightning do not have any debt service they have to support.

Vinik paid cash for the hockey team, ending nearly two decades of the franchise running in the red because of payments on loans.

In addition to the team, Vinik is putting in a substantial amount of money in improvements to the Lightning's arena, the St. Pete Times Forum.

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Does this sound like a guy struggling to make payroll to you?

Did the Tampa Bay Lightning lose $20-$25 million dollars last season?

This rumor (like the one before it) comes from a Philadelphia sports writer who supposedly has inside sources within the Lightning organization—although thus far none of his "sources" information has proven to be accurate.

Could the team have lost that much? Certainly. Many of the league's teams are losing money. Early in the season they struggled at the gate when a burned fanbase took a wait-and-see attitude toward the new organization.

However, the second half of the season saw the fans return and the Forum filled. Old owners Palace Sports and Entertainment said the only season the franchise turned a profit was during it's Stanley Cup run.

The Lightning had a deep playoff run this past season, falling just shy of the Stanley Cup Finals. It's hard to imagine the team going that deep, reaping the playoff gate rewards and losing that much money.

Does Steven Stamkos want to play in Tampa Bay?

The logic that "If he hasn't signed yet, he doesn't really want to be there," is completely flawed. Steven has said on multiple occasions he loves playing for the team, living in the area and believes in the direction of coach Guy Boucher and GM Steve Yzerman.

Of course, the counter to that is, "What's he gonna say? That he hates it?"

He'd likely never do that, either. Still, just because he hasn't signed isn't an indication he dislikes Tampa Bay. This is a business, folks. Stamkos' agents at Newport Sports are looking to maximize his ability to earn.

They know that before RFA season, the team had all the bargaining power. Now the power has shifted to Stamkos. Just the threat of an offer sheet increases the team's motivation to complete a deal for a price point closer to what Newport Sports sees Stamkos at.

Is (insert team here) going to provide an offer sheet to Stamkos?

No, they're not. There's an unwritten rule among NHL General Managers to keep their hands off each others' restricted free agents. Call it collusion if you want, it's more about courtesy.

A GM that breaks that trust and tries to steal a young RFA star player with a max contract offer not only puts at risk his own team's future by surrendering compensation for that player but all the other GM's look at his franchise and say, hey, it's open season on THAT team's RFA's since they broke the code.

Even if the team holding the rights to that RFA matched, it would hurt their salary structure. It's frowned upon among NHL GM's.

Rumor has it Flyers GM Paul Holmgren got that warning from more than one NHL GM and he quickly released a statement saying the Flyers were not going to provide an offer sheet to Stamkos.

Lightning GM Steve Yzerman has gone on record saying the team would match any offer for Steven Stamkos.

Is (insert team here) going to trade for Stamkos?

Trade rumors abound but a trade of Stamkos is highly unlikely. You never say never, but the compensation for a player of Stamkos' caliber would be astronomical. It would also mean that talks between the Lightning and Newport Sports had deteriorated to a point where no resolution was in sight.

We're nowhere near that point. Basically, both sides are playing the waiting game—Newport is hoping a big offer sheet comes in while the Lightning hope nothing comes in and Stamkos' agents come back down to what Tampa Bay wants to pay him.

Is Tampa Bay unable to fit Stamkos under their self-imposed budget?

The holdup in these negotiations is Steve Yzerman's desire to fit Stamkos in at a certain cap number (believed to be $7.5 million). Bad deals from previous regimes have hamstrung the Bolts to a certain extent.

Will it cost the team Stamkos? Absolutely not. If the Stamkos number comes ridiculously high, the team will shed salary, much like the Flyers did to fit goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov.

After all, who would you rather have? Steven Stamkos or a combination of Ryan Malone, Mattais Ohlund and Vincent Lecavalier?

What Yzerman is trying to do is fit Stamkos in at a number the team can live with, knowing older, highly-paid veterans like Martin St. Louis, Ohlund and Eric Brewer likely won't be on the payroll when Stamkos' second deal ends. It also provides the team flexibility to add talent and address weaknesses.

What's the bottom line?

The bottom line is that Steven Stamkos will be a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning for the foreseeable future. Whether his contract handicaps the team will remain to be seen, but the truth is the franchise would be worse off to lose Stamkos than to deal with a larger-than-ideal contract.

The Lightning fanbase has begun to trust the organization again after repeated missteps. It would be a devastating blow to lose a player of Stamkos' caliber for any assortment of players or picks that would fail to match his world-class talent.

Stamkos will be a member of the Lightning because there isn't another alternative.

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