At the Tampa Bay Lightning’s recent media day, Steven Stamkos discussed his disappointment at not being offered a new contract. General manager Julien BriseBois had an answer for that, stating that he was committed to working towards keeping the Lightning as perennial Stanley Cup contenders for years to come, and he needed to see how the season plays out before making any decisions.
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This, of course, fired up the NHL media rumor mill about how and when Stamkos would part ways with the organization, either at the end of the year via free agency or a trade sometime during the 2023-24 season. This speculation has only increased in recent days with the news reported by insider Elliotte Friedman in his recent episode of 32 Thoughts: The Podcast, in which he discussed a belief among those close to Stamkos that the Lightning may not be overly devastated if he decides to explore other options.
While the drama continues to build, the reality of this contract situation is much more complex than whether or not the Lightning want to have Stamkos finish his playing days in a Lightning sweater.
Fitting a Stamkos Contract Under the Salary Cap
Salary cap issues over the past few seasons have forced the Lightning to part ways with valuable members of their Stanley Cup-winning teams, such as Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, and Ross Colton. While the salary cap is expected to increase next season, it still will not be enough to pay what Stamkos is worth and keep everyone else who is currently on the roster. In reality, it is a good decision to see what kind of production the Lightning will get from their 33-year-old captain this season.
It should come as no surprise that the Lightning need to see what kind of production Stamkos has this season, which will provide a framework for contract negotiations. If you look at most of the projections from knowledgeable sources, the consensus is that Stamkos should reach the 90-point plateau this season. If that happens, then it is reasonable to assume that he would rightly ask for a contract that is, at the very least, equivalent to the $8.5 million contract that he has for 2023-24.
Assuming that number is the ballpark figure that the Lightning and Stamkos would agree to, this would force the Lightning to make decisions about other members of their current roster in order to keep their captain and stay under the salary cap in future seasons.
More Offseason Trades Ahead
For argument’s sake, let us say that the Lightning signed Stamkos to a two-year deal at his current average annual value (AAV) of $8.5 million. If you go with the conservative argument that the NHL salary cap will go up around $4 million next season, that would still not likely be enough to keep Stamkos and other key players on the roster. This will be due mainly to the contract signed by Brandon Hagel in the offseason that will give him a $5 million raise in the 2024-25 season. At the very least, that would mean that the Lightning organization will have to hope that the salary cap goes up more than projected, or they will have to trade another key member from their roster.
If the Lightning were forced to trade to stay under the salary cap next season, likely candidates would include Hagel, Anthony Cirelli ($6.25 million AAV), Erik Cernak ($5.2 million AAV), Nick Paul (3.15 million AAV) or Tanner Jeannot ($2.6 million AAV). It is possible that when BriseBois says that he needs to see how the season plays out, he might just be referring to any of these players to see how they can be retained to accommodate the signing of Stamkos.
Prospects May Figure Into Decision
In addition to what was mentioned earlier, any decision made by BriseBois will likely include an evaluation of how some Lightning prospects play this season. One example is Alex Barre-Boulet, who is getting a strong look in training camp to earn a spot on the third line. The 26-year-old had an outstanding season in the American Hockey League (AHL) with the Syracuse Crunch and appears to be on the threshold of being a solid NHL contributor.
In addition to Barre-Boulet, the development of other prospects could make it easier to trade any of the previously mentioned players. Gage Goncalves, Walterri Merela, and Maxim Groshev played very well in the recent Rookie Showcase and could also be potential replacements if one of the current members of the Lightning has to be traded in the offseason.
In a perfect world, the Lightning would have already offered the face of the franchise for the past decade a contract extension that would see Stamkos end his career in a Lightning sweater. However, in the salary cap era of the NHL, things are far from perfect, and the Lightning need to make well-informed decisions that will allow them to be Stanley Cup contenders for years to come.