Tuesday December 15th, 2015

It’s been about six months since Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman reassured the team’s fans that his first priority of the off-season would be to re-sign Steven Stamkos to a long-term extension.

Since then, Yzerman has crossed a number of items off his to-do list. He got coach Jon Cooper’s name on a new contract, for instance. He hired a new assistant coach, Brad Lauer, as well. Heck, he probably picked up his dry cleaning, got the dog’s annual vaccinations and bought his tickets for The Force Awakens, too.

But the one thing that Yzerman hasn’t done is finalize that deal with Stamkos. And the way things are going—TSN’s Bob McKenzie recently described the talks as “going nowhere”—it's not likely to happen soon.

In fact, it might not happen at all.

The possibility that Stamkos actually could enter this summer as a 26-year-old unrestricted free agent is stunning. Players of his ability simply don’t hit the market. They get locked down, long term, and if other pieces have to be moved out to make a deal work under the cap, then so be it.

And yet here we are at a point where it not only seems possible, but maybe even probable that Stamkos will be wearing a different sweater next season. Maybe even sooner if Yzerman decides to cut bait and put him on the market as a rental before this year's deadline.

So, where might he end up? There's a sense that the salary cap will narrow the field and that's probably true. Then again, when an athlete of Stamkos' stature is in play, teams are likely to get creative in order to fit him in.

That means he could land almost anywhere. These teams though are the most likely:

How an NHL team’s system affects a player’s performance

In Toronto, where Stamkos and the Bolts are set to meet the Maple Leafs on Tuesday night, fans are hoping that he has his sights set on returning to his hometown. Sentiment can be a strong lure for someone who dreamed out loud of wearing the blue and white right through to his draft day. He’d get a chance there to play for Mike Babcock, perhaps the most respected coach in the game. And there’s no market where he could make more money both on and off the ice.

But if the Stanley Cup is his driving motivation, he may decide to look elsewhere. The Leafs are only now embarking on a reconstruction project that, while promising, is years away from yielding a true contender. Stamkos may not be willing to go through those long growing pains that took up years of his tenure in Tampa.

There’s also the pressure change to consider. Stamkos has had an easy ride in Tampa, an undemanding market that is generally willing to overlook the occasional blemish. That wouldn’t be the case in Toronto, where his current slump—no goals in his past nine games—would be sweet grist for the 24-hour media mill.

Still, the Leafs look to be the favorite, although they’re not his only option. The most intriguing alternative? How about Nashville. The Predators have several enviable pieces in place, including an elite (though struggling at the moment) goaltender in Pekka Rinne, arguably the best and deepest blueline in the league, and a well-respected coach in Peter Laviolette whose system would fit Stamkos like a glove. Although they’re dealing with an internal budget, the Preds still have plenty of room under the cap and a crying need for a premier, offense-generating center. Put Stamkos in the mix and they become an immediate Cup contender.

St. Louis has the usual Blues as team struggles after hot start

The St. Louis Blues have a lot of money coming off the books this summer, including the $4.5 million that is being paid to captain Dave Backes. Like the Preds, they have a contending foundation in place, but another playoff flop could see them looking to make significant changes. A top-six including both Stamkos and Vladimir Tarasenko would put the Blues on even footing with Chicago and Dallas in the heavily-armed Central Division.

And even though they appear to be set at center for the next decade with Ryan O'Reilly and Jack Eichel, the Buffalo Sabres have the desire and the finances to make a Stamkos deal work, and might be close enough to his old home, and to competing, to lure him to Western New York.

And as a little birdie whispered, don't rule out the Montreal Canadiens this summer if they fall short of a Cup.

Of course, there’s still a chance that this matter is resolved in Tampa before a July 1 breakup. Stamkos is on record as saying he wants to stay with the Lightning. He seems to have loyalty to the players in the room, if not so much the coach who wants him to play out of his preferred position. And his parents have moved to the area.

But that does not diminish the nagging feeling that he’s not the top priority in Tampa after all, and that his time on the Gulf Coast is winding down.

The numbers game

• The Capitals are now 11-4-1 in their last 16 regular-season trips to Pittsburgh since Jan. 21, 2008.

Red Wings rookie Dylan Larkin on rare fast track to stardom with Detroit

• The upstart Oilers have won their last three games against the Bruins after dropping 13 in a row to Boston since Nov. 6, 2001 (0-10-3). On Monday night they also won in Boston for the first time since Nov. 7, 1996 (0-8-2). Despite the overtime loss, the Bruins ran their points streak against the Oilers to 16 games dating back to Nov. 6, 2001 (13-0-3). That is the second-longest active such streak by an NHL team against one opponent, after the 19 the Coyotes (16-0-3) have going against Edmonton since March 17, 2011.

• On Monday night, Buffalo won in regulation when trailing in the final five minutes of the third period for the first time since April 2, 2003, when Daniel Briere and Tim Connolly scored 65 seconds apart to rally the Sabres to a 4–3 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers.

Hot links

• New coach Mike Sullivan got a good look at the challenges that lie ahead during Pittsburgh’s frustrating 4–1 loss to the Capitals on Monday night.

Pressure on Penguins GM Rutherford after firing head coach Johnston

• A group led by Senators owner Eugene Melnyk will present plans on Tuesday for a downtown Ottawa arena development plan. However the presentation is received, it will be a pivotal day in the town’s hockey history.

• Lessons learned in Tampa Bay are shaping the way coach John Tortorella approaches a culture change in Columbus.

• If you think the Oilers look good lately, wait’ll you get a load of them next year.

• Flyers legend Reggie Leach opens up about life after hockey in a fascinating new autobiography.

• Kevin Weekes offers an interesting list of the all-time best goalie for each NHL franchise ... but bails on the one truly tough call.

• We know you love lists, so here's another: the hardest player for each team to trade.

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