Unless you're the Pittsburgh Penguins or Chicago Blackhawks, two teams heavily invested in two players each for a lengthy period of time, there's no reason any NHL team shouldn't be at least entertaining the thought of making a pitch for Lightning center Steven Stamkos should he hit free agency on July 1st. Even teams like the Ottawa Senators or Arizona Coyotes with an internal salary cap may toy with the idea of fitting in a projected Stamkos cap-hit of $10M-plus.
Google "Steven Stamkos news" right now and you have writers covering teams like the NY Rangers, Boston Bruins and NY Islanders with articles concerning the 26 yr. old former first-overall pick (2008.) That said, as we head towards free agency five weeks from now, only a few teams with the right combination of financial wherewithal, cap-space, comfort and opportunity will be left standing to receive the rose from the hockey world's most eligible bachelor.
Why Stamkos is available is a drama worthy of an soap opera status. The loyal face of the franchise endures years of rebuilding and after the team came oh so close to the holy grail, said team investigates trading him.
There was a shiny new toy in Tampa last season during the playoffs, a three-headed whirling dervish top-line known as "The Triplets." Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Nikita Kucherov were the darlings of the 2015 NHL playoffs and represented three of the Lightning's top-four goal-scorers as the team came to within two games of winning the Stanley Cup. Stamkos was fifth in playoff goals on the team, tied for third in points. From No. 1 center and face of the franchise to a second line role and on the trading block.
"All you have to do is point back to the  Stanley Cup Finals where half the team was injured," said Sportsnet's John Shannon on WGR550's Howard Simon Show back in February, "and [head coach Jon] Cooper refused to play Stamkos at center ice. Tyler Johnson (one of the ''Triplets') was playing with a broken wrist, was still playing center, [and] still [had] more powerplay time [than Stamkos].
"Steven Stamkos," continued Shannon, "is supposed to be your No. 1 center, your No. 1 player and he was No. 5 in ice-time."
Shannon says that one needs to read between the lines and he thinks that there could be "personal issues that we'll never know about" concerning a "rift" between Cooper and Stamkos. And to throw a little gas on the fire, there's a little tidbit that had Lightning GM Steve Yzerman trying to trade Stamkos around the 2015 NHL Draft before his no-movement clause kicked in.
From James Mirtle, The Toronto Globe and Mail, December 13, 2015, "Prior to the draft, the Lightning were in discussions with the Buffalo Sabres about a potential deal for the second-overall pick, which they eventually used to take Jack Eichel.
"Depending on who you believe – and we’re dealing with a rumour mill gone absolutely wild right now – those discussions were either very preliminary or somewhat advanced."
On top of the spurned superstar drama that overshadowed much of the Lightning season, in April it was announced that Stamkos had a blood clot and would undergo surgery that was expected to keep him out 1-3 months, or the entire playoffs in a worse case scenario.
Stamkos recovered to the point where he did play in last night's Game-7, 2-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Finals. It was a heroic move and he looked like he hadn't missed a beat, but there was no Willis Reed-type Hollywood ending for Stamkos and the Bolts, merely an extra couple of weeks away from the pursuit of the Stanley Cup to figure out what's next for their eight-year relationship.
Lost in all of this drama was another soap opera Stamkos went through to start his career in Tampa. Former head coach Barry Melrose and then part-owner Len Barrie were in a power-struggle as to the use of Tampa's prized rookie.
Melrose didn't think Stamkos was physically ready for the NHL. The former Bolts coach used the media to defend his use of the star player after Tampa fired him. "Steven is going to be a good player ... right now he's just not strong enough physically to play against defensemen who are [6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4] that can skate as good as him," Melrose said via ESPN, telling TheFan590 that "[Stamkos] is not ready for the NHL."
In an effort to defend Stamkos with Melrose at the helm, Barrie told the St. Petersbugh Times, "[Melrose] didn't want Steven on this team from day one, and it was evident how he played him," according to the Times. "Everyone knows this kid is a star player."
Thus Stamkos' career in Tampa started with drama, and so it will probably end in drama.
But where will he be headed?
As mentioned, there's no shortage of teams lining up for Stamkos' services and every team offers something a little different in addition to the presumed eight-figure salary he'll be hauling in. But the two teams whose names are being thrown around most often are Toronto and Buffalo.
The Toronto Maple Leafs can put together an appealing package for the Markham, Ontario native, including the opportunity to become a hero of mythic proportions. They have a trio of hockey men atop the hockey operations that are some of the best minds in the game including Team President Brendan Shanahan, GM Lou Lamoriello and head coach Mike Babcock.
Toronto also has pockets deep enough to absorb a maximum salary upwards of $14M/season for Stamkos. In addition, the fruits of their teardown will be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft this season which more than likely will be phenom Auston Matthews and they have a very strong prospect pool, many of whom will be starting their NHL journey full-time within the next couple of seasons. Plus, of course, Toronto is the self-proclaimed "Center of the Hockey Universe."
It's a glorious situation in Toronto for Stamkos.
On the other hand, a mere hour south of Mount Maple Leaf lies Buffalo, NY--the bastard child of the red-headed stepchild of the NHL.
Buffalo can offer everything Toronto does from a financial and organizational standpoint. They have an owner with very deep pockets, a hockey department that's sound and two former second-overall picks with one of them being a franchise type center. The Sabres prospect pool took a hit lately, but only because their two best prospects--Eichel and Sam Reinhart--are already full-time, top-six players and they traded away a chunk of the picks and prospects they'd been stockping picks to acquire young veterans, Evander Kane, Zach Bogosian, Ryan O'Reilly and Robin Lehner.
And there's the rub. The Sabres already have a strong support group in place where Stamkos can slide right in.
The Stanley Cup is on every player's mind, moreso with stars as it directly relates to their legacy. Should Stamkos decide to leave Tampa, one would assume that he's not really interested in starting at the bottom again with another team. Although Toronto does offer a the trio of hockey minds perched high atop Maple Leaf, and even though they do have a strong pool of prospects, they're still about two years behind Buffalo simply because the Sabres started the process earlier and GM Tim Murray was able to land the young-vets he did. Whereas Buffalo is on the verge of making the playoffs without Stamkos, the Maple Leafs might be two years away with him.
But, all things being equal, the question Stamkos might want to ask himself concerns the media circus that twists like a sharp knife through "The Center of the Hockey Universe" and whether he really wants the drama that will surely await him should things not go as planned.
Unlike New York City where a player can get lost because the attention of it's populace lies somewhere other than with hockey, Toronto is a hockey-mad, big city with a sharp focus on the Leafs. Despite the proclamations of patience and understanding, Leaf Nation desperately craves something they haven't had since the days of the Original Six--a Stanley Cup. There's a huge microscope on everyone in the Leafs organization and enough media to cover every aspect of the Leafs two-times over.
Buffalo is different in that respect as Stamkos won't be facing a daily media circus in the quest for the Cup. Sure some in the media will always have their opinions and agendas, but on a much, much smaller scale than what he'd be facing in Toronto.
All that said, the Sabres can offer Stamkos the big-city money he wants and he can walk into a situation in Buffalo with a team on the rise. There's a superstar in the making in Eichel, a two-way team-leader in O'Reilly, a group of youngins lead by the underrated Reinhart and burgeoning Jake McCabe, solid young-vets in Kane, Bogosian and Tyler Ennis, veteran leaders in Brian Gionta and Josh Gorges. Although their prospect pool has been depleted, it's of no real concern near-term as they're well under the NHL salary cap and can fit in whom they deem necessary.
Sure, Buffalo might not be as glamorous as New York, nor will it offer the god-like status that Toronto could, but the Sabres just might have everything Stamkos needs from a financial and hockey standpoint, without the drama, for a prolonged shot at the Stanley Cup. As a player, there's not much more than one could ask for.