TAMPA, FL - MAY 25: Steven Stamkos #91 of the Tampa Bay Lightning warms up prior to Game Six of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Bruins during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at St Pete Times Forum on May 25, 2011 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Steven Stamkos doesn't have a contract for next season, and there are rumors that several big market teams could try to pry him away from the Tampa Bay Lightning. But what if a smaller team closer to home decided to meddle?
Tomas Kopecky is in love with his new team.
The Florida Panthers and general manager Dale Tallon, who is quite familiar with the former Blackhawk from their days together in Chicago, signed him to a relatively hefty four-year, $12 million contract earlier this week, and if he hadn't negotiated with the Panthers, it's likely he doesn't get that much money.
That's the cruelty, or benefit, of the NHL's salary structure. With a continually rising salary cap (thanks, NBC) and a fixed salary floor hanging $16 million below that cap no matter how high that cap goes, we have a system that's seen player salaries rise exponentially since the 2004 season, to the point where they're almost on par with what we saw in 2003-04, the year before we lost an entire season of hockey.
That year, teams could pay at maximum $39 million on their rosters for the 04-05 season. Today, just six years later, teams have to pay $48 million or face harsh penalties, such as a the garnishment of draft picks for circumventing the salary system.
For teams like Florida that struggle with reaching that lower limit, it brings up a whole multitude of problems in terms of whether or not those teams can be profitable. But at the end of the day, they have to reach that number -- whether it be through attaching absurd bonuses to contracts or by simply spending more guaranteed money on their on-ice workforce.
Enter Kopecky, who suddenly has himself a nice $1.8 million raise thanks to the problem. It's the direct result of the Panthers need to spend money. A lot of it. And everybody who plays hockey professionally in the Miami area is probably going to benefit in one way or another.
Tallon can get creative. He still has some restricted free agents that will sign contracts, but none of them will be for crazy amounts of money. He's added Brian Campbell for $7-plus million a year and that certainly helps, and if he's able to sign Tomas Vokoun, that'll get the number a little closer to the floor.
But there's one easy, really ballsy and kind of awesome way in which Tallon and the Panthers can get themselves cap compliant, and in one fell swoop, they could absolutely decimate their biggest rival at the same time.
Send an offer sheet Steven Stamkos' way.
Do it, Dale. It would be more epic than when Happy Gilmore hit that last putt on the 18th green to win the Gold Jacket. Sure, Steve Yzerman would probably throw a hissy fit, steal Stamkos back and try to run off with him, but that guy you hit in the head with a nail gun would chase him down and make it right. Don't worry.
How exactly would this work? Well, Tallon has options, and both would help his team either directly or indirectly.
He could send over a one-year offer for somewhere around the maximum salary of about $12 million per year. That would add $12 million to his payroll for 2011-12 should Stamkos sign and become a Panther after the Bolts fail to match the contract.
He'd be stealing away the future of his biggest rival, but he'd also be sending them four first round, potentially high draft picks for what could amount to one year of Steven Stamkos, giving them a great chance to rebuild that future. At the same time, if Stamkos is visiting St. Pete in red three times a year, it might all be worth it.
The better option Tallon has is even more sinister. He could hope that the Bolts match a more hefty offer -- something like the Philadelphia Flyers are reportedly mulling over in the 12 year, $115 million range for over $9 million per year. After all, Jeff Vinik and Steve Yzerman are on record saying that the Lightning will match any deal for their prized young 21-year-old star.
If the Lightning, a team that's not exactly rolling in the dough either despite having a billionaire owner at the helm, are forced to pay such top dollar for Stamkos' services, they're going to have to make some other moves to make it work. It's going to cause mass chaos at the St. Pete Times Forum, to put it lightly. Judgment day, and that's good news for their biggest rival -- the Panthers.
The problem for the Panthers in that sense is that if the Bolts don't match, they'd be stuck with an absurd contract that they probably can't afford. After all, there's a reason why they're so far under the cap floor -- they don't have the money to spend.
It's all about calling Tampa's bluff. Do you believe them when they say they'll match any deal? Can Vinik and Yzerman deal with the PR hit of losing another young star (Brad Richards being the other) because they want to keep the money on the books?
You have to think that unless it's the "poison pill," meaning, a deal that the Bolts simply cannot afford to match, Yzerman will be holding on to Stamkos no matter what. They can't afford to lose him, unless they can't afford to keep him, if that makes sense.
Maybe in that regard, the Panthers can just throw in a middle of the road deal -- maybe six to 10 years at an $8 million-plus cap hit. Something that they could work into their budget if the Bolts happen to not match (they have to spend money after all, remember), but something that would also really screw the Bolts at the same time, should they decide to match.
Just like some sort of tug-of-war in the murky, snake and alligator-filled waters of the Everglades between Tampa and Sunrise, it would be a risky proposition for Dale Tallon and the Panthers to jump into the fight with Steve Yzerman and the Lightning.
One man would come out on top, jump on a fan boat and speed back home in victory. The other would fall face first in the mud, and a probably lose a hand or perhaps even more to a vicious animal bite. It'd be quite the entertaining battle for everybody else, though.