The reigning Eastern Conference Champion Tampa Bay Lightning’s follow up campaign hasn’t exactly gone according to plan this season. Tampa has been battling the injury bug all year, with names like Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Cedric Paquette, Ryan Callahan, and Nikita Kucherov all having spent time on the injury list (some still are). When the Lightning are healthy, they are one of the top teams in the East. But if health remains an issue in the coming weeks, and Tampa remains among the wild card contenders (they are one point behind New Jersey for the last WC spot as of Thursday afternoon) instead of the top three in the Atlantic Division, they could be making moves as the trade deadline approaches. It’s no secret that Steven Stamkos’ contract is up at the end of the season, and there doesn’t appear to be any significant progress between the two sides. If Stamkos intends to bolt (see what I did there) from Tampa at season’s end, it would be wise for GM Steve Yzerman to get a return for him while he still can, like the New York Rangers did with the aforementioned Callahan two season ago.
There isn’t a team in the NHL that couldn’t use a guy of Stamkos’ talent, but there are teams that are more likely to take him on as a rental than others. There’s also been plenty of rumors of where Stamkos would like to sign his next contract with. While there are other contending teams that Stamkos could provide a big boost to (Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, NY Rangers, Pittsburgh, Washington), they would need to make moves to clear cap space first for the rental, and they wouldn’t have the requisite cap room to resign him for the long haul. Here are the best possible short term and long term fits for him:
Dallas – The NHL’s top team in the standings have two of the best offensive talents in the league in Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. Adding Stammer to the mix that also includes Jason Spezza and Patrick Sharp would give the Stars the deepest group of forwards in the league. Imagine a power play unit with Stamkos, Seguin, Benn, Jason Spezza & John Klingberg.
Anaheim – The Ducks would obviously need to make a huge push in the standings before making a big deal for a rental, but if they did, he could be the piece to get them over the hump. Depth at the center position is important, especially in the West. Ryan Kesler has been a big disappointment this season, and could easily move to the wing or the third line.
Minnesota – I don’t see GM Chuck Fletcher making this kind of move, but Stamkos would provide an upgrade at a position where the Wild’s top two options are Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund. The Wild reside in the toughest division in the league, and any improvement increases the chances of surviving the first two rounds of the playoffs.
St. Louis – The Blues have a lot of forwards, but they’re lacking a reliable center besides David Backes. Paul Stastny has been underwhelming this season, and Jori Lehtera is only slightly better. Much like Minnesota, if the Blues want to survive the first two rounds of the playoffs, they’ll need to make a move to separate themselves from the pack that includes Chicago, Dallas, and Nashville.
LONG TERM CANDIDATES
Toronto – The rumor of Stamkos playing for his home town team after his time in Tampa is done isn’t anything new. With his time on the Gulf Coast dwindling without a new contract in sight, the buzz is back. Now that the Maple Leafs have finally bottomed out, there is a plan in place to get better for the long haul, and this could become a reality. Toronto could make a move to acquire him before the season is over to guarantee themselves an exclusive negotiating window with the Lightning Captain. Stamkos could be one of the crown jewels in the Brendan Shanahan/Lou Lamoriello/Mike Babcock rebuild. Signing here would require some patience before expecting to be competitive annually.
Montreal – This could be the best balance of going somewhere that is competitive now and in the near future, a hockey hot bed, and playing with one of your closest friend’s. Stamkos and PK (pronounce it however you’d like) Subban are long time friends that go all the way back to youth hockey together. Making the financials work would require some long hours by GM Marc Bergevin, but adding Stamkos would give the Habs a strong mix of centers with Tomas Plekanec and David Desharnais.
Nashville – The Music City isn’t a market that comes to mind for a big free agent, but it would be a good marriage. Besides the fact that Stamkos is friends with James Neal, the Predators desperately need a center of his caliber, and the cap space is there. GM David Poile isn’t scared to make a big move if it makes sense, and Stamkos would be a good fit in Peter Laviolette’s system. Acquiring him before the deadline would give them extra time to get a long-term deal done without any interference, and it would keep him from being a rental from one of the aforementioned Central Division rivals.
The dynamic between and Stamkos and the Lightning brass remains a fluid situation, and they could get something done within the next two months. But as time goes on, and February 29th creeps closer and closer, the pressure is going to be on Yzerman to maximize Stamkos’ value, whether that’s at Amalie Arena or elsewhere.