TAMPA — The countdown clock is officially ticking.
The NHL trade deadline is four weeks from today, and the Lightning will be the league’s most-watched team between now and the 3 p.m. deadline on Feb. 29. General manager Steve Yzerman won’t necessarily be the busiest executive among his peers, but any move he does — or does not — make will garner big headlines.
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos remains without a contract extension, and he is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. So, the cloud that hovered over the franchise at the start of training camp has only grown darker as the season has stretched beyond its halfway point.
It remains to be seen where Stamkos will end up and whether the Lightning will trade their captain if they think a new contract will not be reached in time.
Stamkos has some say in the matter. With a full no-move clause in his contract, he cannot be traded or waived without granting his permission.
But if the Lightning did indeed consider trading Stamkos — rather than lose him as a free agent this summer and get nothing in return — what might Yzerman want? A right-handed defenseman? NHL players? Prospects? Draft picks?
And what teams might want in on the action? The criteria is limiting — with salary cap space being a big consideration.
There are four teams that have the resources to possibly acquire the two-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner in hopes of signing him to a long-term extension. And there are four teams with the resources to possibly acquire Stamkos — and the balance of his $7.5 million salary cap hit — as a “rental” player in a bid to win the Stanley Cup this season.
LOOKING TO BUY?
♦ St. Louis
The Blues have been a playoff disappointment in recent seasons, failing to advance beyond the first round despite being a strong team on paper. And St. Louis has shown they are not afraid to pull off a big move at the deadline, just as it did in acquiring goaltender Ryan Miller two years ago. But if the Blues were to acquire Stamkos, they likely would want assurances he would remain with the team because it will cost St. Louis roster players to bring him in to the fold.
Estimated available cap space: $3.4 million*
The Canucks are stuck in the middle of a rebuilding phase while still trying to make the playoffs. But the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, are 35 years old. Trading for Stamkos and signing him to an extension would allow Vancouver to remain a viable playoff contender — especially in the weak Pacific Division — while accelerating the rebuilding process.
Estimated available cap space: $3.3 million*
Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are nearing the end of their stellar careers as the Red Wings transition to a younger generation of players, including Dylan Larkin and Gustav Nyquist. What better way to accelerate that transition than to add a 26-year-old star to the mix to help build the Wings back into an Eastern Conference power again?
Estimated available cap space: $1.8 million*
The only way the Maple Leafs consider a trade is if they know Stamkos is staying long term. And the only reason to surrender assets for him would be to avoid a potential bidding war that could drive up his sticker price even higher this summer. But this probably is the most unlikely scenario for a trade, because it’s hard to see Stamkos waiving his no-move clause to go to a team that will miss the playoffs.
Estimated available cap space: $8.5 million*
The loss of all-world goaltender Carey Price has highlighted the absence of consistent Canadiens offensive threats to help Max Pacioretty. Should Montreal get back into the playoff picture, acquiring Stamkos might be just the type of bold move that would ignite an already passionate fan base hungry for Lord Stanley’s Cup. Defenseman P.K. Subban, a right-handed shot, manning the point on the power play with Stamkos perched at the left circle, would make the Canadiens’ power play a threat to score every time. But would Yzerman trade Stamkos to a division opponent?
Estimated cap space available: $9.7 million*
♦ New York Rangers
If the Rangers hope to advance to a third consecutive Eastern Conference final, they must get past the Washington Capitals. To do that, they are likely going to need more scoring. New York has a glut of mid-level forwards, while the team’s biggest name, Rick Nash, appears to be on the decline. Adding a top-flight player would make the roster that much deeper and could be the difference in trying to get past a loaded Washington team primed to reach the conference final for the first time in the Alex Ovechkin era.
Estimated available cap space: $4.9 million*
The Wild scuffled through the month of January, losing games because they struggled to score goals. Minnesota is built on defense with Ryan Suter and company. But beyond Zach Parise, who has been hampered by a knee injury this season, there are few consistent offensive threats. And the power play is ranked in the bottom one-third of the league. Adding Stamkos would make the Wild more of a threat to escape the difficult Central Division. And the Lightning would not risk running into Minnesota until the Stanley Cup Final.
Estimated available cap space: $6.2 million*
♦ Tampa Bay
Wait, what? Don’t worry, there’s an explanation. Even if the Lightning feel they will not sign Stamkos to an extension before the trade deadline, they might be inclined to keep him for the rest of this season. Tampa Bay appears to be a playoff team and a contender to return to the Stanley Cup Final. They are a better team with Stamkos than without, and keeping him for the rest of the season gives them the best chance of repeating as Eastern Conference champions.
Estimated available cap space: $1.7 million*
* Source: GeneralFanager.com; estimates based on what teams will have available at the trade deadline.