The Tampa Bay Lightning became the focal point of the NHL news cycle on Wednesday when their training camp opened with Steven Stamkos declaring he was disappointed with the lack of contract talks between himself and the team.
It was far from an ideal way to gear up for the season for a Lightning squad looking to bounce back from a disappointing 2022-23 campaign that ended in a first-round playoff loss.
While players make statements about their contract situations all the time, the tone is a little different when a team is getting called out by a player who holds their franchise records for goals (515) and points (1,056) and has captained the squad to two Stanley Cup titles.
Losing Stamkos would be a tough pill to swallow for the Lightning, but extending him won't be easy, either.
The veteran clearly wants to remain in Tampa Bay and the team would surely love to retain a player of his calibre, but the club's salary-cap situation could get in the way of a reunion.
According to CapFriendly's projections, the Lightning have $12.39 million in available cap space for 2024-25, making them one of the most locked-in rosters in the NHL. Just four teams have fewer available dollars for that season, and Tampa Bay has less than half of the league average ($25.51 million).
For the most part that's a good thing for the franchise. Having players like Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli, Brandon Hagel, Mikhail Segachev, Erik Cernak and Andrei Vasilevskiy all under contract through at least 2026-27 is a good spot to be in.
It doesn't put them in an ideal situation to re-sign Stamkos, though. If Tampa Bay brings back its captain, that will eat up the vast majority of their 2024-25 cap space, and make it more difficult to re-sign key defenders Viktor Hedman and Nick Perbix when their deals expire following that season.
Stamkos is currently on a deal that pays him $8.5 million per year, and he's coming off a two-season stretch with stellar offensive production and only two games missed. The veteran ranks ninth in the NHL in points since the beginning of the 2021-22 season with 190.
That kind of output is extremely difficult to replace. While Stamkos doesn't score at quite the clip he did at the outset of his career, he's still an elite offensive force.
Despite the forward's age (33), it'd be difficult to demand Stamkos take a pay cut based on what he's done recently.
Just coming back on the same salary might be tough to stomach for the sniper. In the United States there has been 27.8% inflation since Stamkos signed his first deal, so equalling it would be a purchasing-power dip for him. The salary cap hasn't risen enough to bridge that gap, but his last deal also began at 11.6% of the cap, while re-signing him at $8.5 million for 2024-25 would give him 9.7% of the pie.
It's possible Stamkos wants to stay in Tampa Bay enough that re-upping on his current figure is good enough for him, that's no guarantee. There's also a good chance teams with more cap space would be open to offering him more for a heavy dose of scoring and leadership.
Even if the team and player could agree to that number, Stamkos is at an age where term will be difficult to agree on. He's still producing at a high level, but Tampa Bay would be reasonable to consider how he might decline in the years to come.
Letting Stamkos walk would be unpopular with the fanbase, could be a tough sell in the locker room, and would have a negative effect on the team's offensive output.
Keeping him would be rolling the dice on when his decline hits — and how hard. It would also severely minimize the team's flexibility, and further commit to a core that just produced a disappointing 98-point campaign followed by an early playoff exit.
It's understandable that the Lightning want to see 2023-24 play out before making their next move. General manager Julien BriseBois said as much on Wednesday.
After this season, the team will have a better idea of whether its core can contend for a Stanley Cup or if 2022-23 indicated it's in decline. Plus it will get another chance to put the battle between Stamkos and Father Time under the microscope. If the team thrives, and the captain's contributions are central to that success, prioritizing continuity over flexibility will make sense.
If the Lightning don't meet expectations, it might be difficult to justify bringing Stamkos back, unless he has a difficult enough season that his salary expectations plummet. In that situation, Tampa Bay might be hesitant to bring him back at all.
A lot can happen to affect this situation over the course of a season, but the fundamental issue will remain unchanged. Stamkos deserves a meaty salary, and the Lightning have far less money available than the vast majority of NHL teams.
That makes a reunion difficult, even if it's what both sides would prefer.