Tampa Bay Lightning

Steve Yzerman’s Management Legacy Will Be Defined by Steven Stamkos

(Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire)

NHL front office executives face crucial defining moments in their careers, much like the players they roster, handle and work with on a daily basis. We judge forwards on their ability to score goals in the clutch and elevate goalies who are considered plug-and-play during Game 7s.

Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman is facing one of those moments now. If he works in the NHL for another 10 or 15 years, fans and pundits will always look back at how he guided the Lightning through the 2015-16 season. The month of February in particular.

Because we are 12 days away from the NHL trade deadline and Steven Stamkos is still without a new extension. Phrases like drama and tension really don’t do this fluid situation justice. Over the life of his expiring deal, Tampa’s captain has scored more goals than any active player not named Alex Ovechkin. He has 29 more tallies than the next closest — the criminally underrated Joe Pavelski — and has been the face of the franchise since 2009-10.

Yet if he reaches this summer without a new deal, he could walk as a free agent for nothing. Everyone around the NHL knows this and is watching intently. That’s why this will be the defining moment of Yzerman’s management career to this point. The stakes are so high that this could be the defining moment, period.

His options are agonizing, and no matter what he does it will dramatically impact his franchise for the next decade-plus. Stamkos is a generational goal-scorer and would be the guy we think of when it comes to lit lamps if it wasn’t for Ovechkin’s ridiculous output in Washington. As just about any GM would put it: forwards like this don’t grow on trees, and drafting them is a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Acquiring high first-round picks is one thing, but scorers like Stamkos are incredibly rare.

Today’s NHL is all about cap management and handling assets wisely, though. The Lightning aren’t a bad team with tons of cap space to burn. There’s no rebuild going on here. Their Stanley Cup window is open right now, in large part because of Stamkos. This season hasn’t gone as well as they hoped, but the Lightning will likely make the playoffs and have a good chance of taking another run to the Stanley Cup Final.

Still, the Stamkos re-signing wouldn’t be happening in a vacuum. His $7.5 million cap hit could potentially reach as high as $10 million on a max-year deal. That’s the kind of payday that is awaiting him in July, and he knows it. If nothing else, the Toronto Maple Leafs will likely come calling with max-term, max cap hit contract that would be tough to turn down for the 26-year-old.

We’re potentially talking north of $100 million in cash. No matter who you are or how much you love the team you play for, money talks. As the team’s GM, that’s the language that Yzerman is going to have to speak. If he wants to keep his prime-time player, he’s going to have to hand Stamkos a prime-time payday. This will probably be the largest contract of Stamkos’ career, and he’s looking to accumulate wealth to match his substantial resume and skill set.

This is where elite management teams earn their reputations and their own paychecks. Organizations like the Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings and Los Angeles Kings have structured perennial contenders by making shrewd, intelligent moves more often than not. Sometimes they make mistakes, but looking down the line, none of these teams has dealt away a centerpiece player, let alone lost one to free agency.

Detroit has kept Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk locked down and happy. You can bet that Ken Holland will do the same for Dylan Larkin when his time comes. The Blackhawks gave Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews monster extensions that will keep them in the Windy City for the rest of their careers. Los Angeles averted a crisis of its own by re-signing Anze Kopitar to an eight-year, $80 million extension in January.

These are the kinds of players you build around. Keeping money clear for the likes of Tyler Johnson and Victor Hedman is important but not imperative. Not in this case. Not with a player like Stamkos.

The time is rapidly approaching for Yzerman to hand Stamkos his due. Failure to do so could set the Lightning back years, and it doesn’t sound like a trade is a viable option. According to the player, he “hasn’t even thought about” what his response would be if Yzerman asked him to waive his no-trade clause. One could argue that getting something back would be better than nothing, but this is a rare case where that isn’t true.

Especially since things have rapidly gone south with the player who appeared to be the Stamkos fail-safe upon being drafted in Jonathan Drouin.

It’s impossible to know what’s going on in Stamkos’ mind or behind closed doors in Tampa Bay. Conversations have taken place that we aren’t aware of, but it seems safe to assume that if Yzerman knew for certain that he’d be losing his captain that a trade would have happened by now. There would have been way more smoke on the trade front, as opposed to where the soot is rising from right now, which is July 1.

The only number we’ve seen leak so far was Tampa’s initial lowball offer of $8.5 million per season on average. That would represent a $1 million raise on what Stamkos is already making, and lags far behind recent contracts for similar players like Toews and Kopitar. If Yzerman is playing a game of chicken in an attempt to save an extra million against the cap, then it could backfire. And he’s running out of time to get this thing right.

This is not the kind of game that Stan Bowman typically plays in Chicago, and Holland has never been shy about paying players what they are worth. It Yzerman hopes to join the ranks of the best managers in the league, the time has come for him to pay his top player the money he deserves while he still has the chance.

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