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The Tampa Bay Lightning are on the verge of eliminating Detroit, and that's without Steven Stamkos. Maybe letting him walk in free agency is the right move?
The Tampa Bay Lightning looked like a complete hockey team, a.k.a one not missing something or somebody, in Tuesday's Game 4 victory over the Detroit Red Wings.
Tampa held Detroit to exactly two goals for a fourth straight contest. The Bolts converted three times on the power play, Nikita Kucherov twice and Ondrej Palat once, all assisted by Jonathan Drouin. They head back to Tampa Bay up 3-1 in their Atlantic Division semifinal having scored at least three goals in three of four games.
Would the Lightning be in better shape with captain and top goal scorer Steven Stamkos in the lineup? Of course. Same goes for top-pairing defenseman Anton Stralman. Pencil those two in and we'd probably have a sweep on our hands. But the Lightning have shown something noteworthy with regards to Stamkos, the game's most famous unrestricted free agent ever: they are a damn good team with or without him.
Coach Jon Cooper's top nine forwards in Game 4:
Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov
Ondrej Palat, Valtteri Filppula, Jonathan Drouin
Cedric Paquette, Vlad Namestnikov, Ryan Callahan
Not bad at all. Kucherov is legitimately one of the NHL's best right wingers now. Johnson and Palat struggled earlier this season but have since recaptured the excellent form they showed in their first two NHL campaigns. Drouin, finally given a proper look in the top six out of necessity, continues to prove all he does is score when he's on the ice, trade request and defection from AHL Syracuse be damned. Drouin is just 21, armed with outstanding pure offensive skills, and he's showing it's not too late for him to become a star.
All this information matters because Stamkos, 26, will earn a massive contract this off-season. At minimum, he'll match Anze Kopitar's eight-year, $80-million deal, but since Stamkos is three years younger, he has an excellent chance to surpass Kopitar, not to mention Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, for the league's richest average annual value, north of $11 million. No matter how good a player is, every team has to weigh the pros and cons before committing that chunk of change, especially when he'll command a max eight-year term from the only team he's ever played for, and especially because of his blood-clot scare.
The Red Wings aren't exactly the 2016 playoffs' most feared juggernaut, sure. But they're a competent team, and the Bolts are good enough without Stamkos and Stralman to outclass them so far. The majority of the Stamkos-less core succeeding also happens to need new contracts this summer or next. A quick rundown:
1. Johnson as one season left at $3.33 million. He has a real chance to double it as a restricted free agent in 2017.
2. Same goes for Palat. He has the exact same contract as Johnson.
3. Nikita Kucherov? Gulp. He's an RFA this summer. He hasn't done quite enough to command the Vladimir Tarasenko contract (eight years, $60 million, $7.5-million AAV), but Kucherov has clearly vaulted himself past bridge-deal territory. His next contract should command at least $6 million per season.
4. Oh, boy. Victor Hedman. He's a UFA after next summer. He'll become one of the NHL's highest-paid players, period. P.K. Subban earned $9 million per year two summers ago as a pending 2016 UFA. No doubt the Hedman talks start with that deal as a comparable.
5. Ben Bishop, he of the $5.95-million cap hit, finishes his contract next summer and becomes a UFA. Have to think he gets Tuukka Rask or Pekka Rinne money. That's $7 million a season. If GM Steve Yzerman wants to keep the price down, he better hope Bishop doesn't win the Vezina Trophy this June. He's almost a lock to be a finalist.
6. Alex Killorn has 11 goals and 22 points in his past 30 playoff games and three straight regular seasons of at least 14 goals and 38 points. Probably sufficient to earn at least a slight pay hike on his $2.55-million cap hit as an RFA this off-season. Call it $3 million or more.
7. Vlad Namestnikov broke out as a bona fide NHLer this season, earning occasional top-line wing duty before settling as the third-line center. Could earn a bridge deal as an RFA this summer, but he's still earning a big raise on his $874,125.
8. If Drouin continues to acquit himself well, stays with the Lightning for next season and blossoms further: who knows what his second contract will be when he's an RFA next summer? The worst-case scenario still makes him a millionaire on a bridge deal. Best case? The sky's the limit. There's a huge range of outcomes, many of which mean he makes some serious coin.
9. Andrei Vasilevskiy? Tough one. He's an RFA next summer, he's already a high-end backup goalie, and he's good enough to get a shot as a starter somewhere already. He also could be a trade candidate if an expansion draft happens next summer.
That list doesn't include Paquette and J.T. Brown up front and Andrej Sustr and Nikita Nesterov on defense. Even Brian Boyle hits free agency after 2016-17. This entire Tampa Bay team is in flux. It already has more than $57 million committed in salary next season, with Killorn, Brown, Namestnikov, Kucherov, Paquette, Nesterov and Jonathan Marchessault unsigned. Where does $11 million of Stamkos fit in, especially factoring in the new deals for Hedman, Bishop, Johnson, Palat and Drouin due a season later?
Maybe Stamkos doesn't. Maybe a mutual breakup makes the most sense for both sides. Are the Lightning better without Stamkos? Of course not. But that's not the same thing as better off. Letting him walk gives Yzerman a better chance retain the rest of a young roster already playing quite well sans-Stamkos. Heck, there still might be room to replace 'Stammer' with a cheaper UFA. If it's a center: call it David Backes. A winger? Maybe the Bolts take a run at Kyle Okposo or Milan Lucic. Any of those buys will command at least 30 percent less than No. 91, and on a shorter term. Within a year or two, prospect Brayden Point may also be NHL-ready. He tore it up with WHL Moose Jaw this season. He could be a Johnson clone for the top six.
Stamkos remains one of the world's best players. In a vacuum, if money didn't exist, of course the Bolts would keep him. He'll also seriously augment their Stanley Cup chances this spring if they stay alive long enough for him to return from his blood clot. But if re-signing him jeopardizes the rest of a team currently flourishing without him…is he worth it? No.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin