Steve Yzerman is going for it.
Flying in the face of conventional wisdom, the general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning will hold on to superstar forward Steven Stamkos for the rest of the season. And in doing so he could change the way NHL teams handle pending free agents.
Yzerman made his intentions known on Monday morning.
“As February 29th approaches, I am stating today that Steven Stamkos will not be traded before the NHL’s trade deadline. I have said repeatedly that it is our hope to reach an agreement with Steven on a new contract at some point, and with 27 games remaining in the season, our entire organization, Steven included, wants to focus on making the playoffs. I will keep the negotiating process strictly between the involved parties and have no further comment on the state of those negotiations.”
Yzerman is bound to take some heat for this, but it is the right move. He essentially ends the discussion of Stamkos’s future and refocuses the player and the team on the task ahead: getting back to the Stanley Cup Final.
To do that, Yzerman is essentially treating Stamkos like a deadline rental, a player who makes the Lightning a more competitive team down the stretch with no promise of a long-term engagement.
However, the risk here isn’t foregoing a first-round pick and a couple of solid prospects—the sort of package you’d expect to receive from a team that is looking for a scorer of Stamkos’s stature at the deadline. It's the chance that Stamkos might walk away at the end of the season and leave the Lightning holding the bag.
That's a huge gamble and one that will be watched carefully around the league. But even if Stamkos does take his 40-plus goals elsewhere, it’s still a gamble worth taking. Not just because of the potential for another run at the Cup, either, although that’s the key consideration. It’s because of all the other challenges Yzerman will face during the coming months.
The Lightning have a very uncertain future, with concerns that go well beyond the fate of Stamkos and suspended prospect Jonathan Drouin. Nikita Kucherov, the team’s leading scorer, and top-six forwards Alex Killorn and Vladislav Namestnikov are looking at significant raises this summer. They’re just three of the seven restricted free agents who Yzerman needs to address.
The situation gets stickier during the summer of 2017 when he has both defenseman Victor Hedman and goalie Ben Bishop eligible for unrestricted free agency plus two of the Triplets, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, going RFA.
He’ll be hard pressed to keep all of them happy even without an eight-figure cap hit for Stamkos. But those are problems he’s booted down the road in order to focus on one more kick at the can with his best possible lineup.
Yzerman understands there are no guarantees in this game. So if you get a chance like this, you have to go for it.
This won't be the last big decision he makes, either. Look for the Bolts to be aggressive ahead of the trade deadline, with an eye on adding defensive depth. He'd ideally like to bring in a top-four player to replace Jason Garrison (out 3-5 weeks) and he has a piece in Drouin that will allow him to make a big splash.