Steven Stamkos, Lightning should lean toward Crosby’s contract rather than Ovechkin’s deal

As we discussed in the last post, the Tampa Bay Lightning face a rather unusual (and potentially calamitous) negotiation process with young star Steven Stamkos. Although they would retain the right to match any offer a team throws his way, it would still be a huge challenge if he becomes a restricted free agent on July 1.

While star forwards obviously have seen their entry-level deals expire in the post-lockout era, the big guns like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin signed deals about a season before their deals would have been up. That’s what makes Steven Stamkos’ situation (and to some extent, Drew Doughty’s as well) so interesting: teams might actually get a chance to send imposing offer sheets his way, ratcheting up the intrigue on the Tampa Bay Lightning’s end. In a way, Stamkos and the Lightning could set a new precedent since their situation is pretty rare.

That being said, Stamkos’ agent and the Lightning will likely look at other star contracts as benchmarks for the budding young star’s second deal. Since Stamkos is rapidly encroaching on their territory already – and each player sports conveniently different contracts – it might make sense to compare his potential deal to the ones enjoyed by Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin.

First, let’s look at each deal.

Crosby’s contract: five years, $43.5 million ($8.7 million annual salary cap hit); contract expires after the 2012-13 season.

Ovechkin’s contract: 13 years, $124 million ($9.54 million annual salary cap hit); contract expires after the 2020-21 season.

From a pure salary cap standpoint, the different between the two deals isn’t that large. That being said, there are some major pros and cons that I believe would make a Crosby-type deal more beneficial to both the Lightning and Stamkos.

Reduced risk for the Lightning

Naturally, imagining 10 years of Stamkos flirting with the 50-goal mark probably seems like a thing of beauty for the Bolts. That being said, injuries are an obvious part of life in the NHL and every once in a while a player just isn’t the same.

It seems like an unsettling point to make, but the Pittsburgh Penguins must feel a little less queasy about Crosby’s cloudy concussion conundrum because he’s only locked up for two more seasons. If Ovechkin was in that situation instead, the Washington Capitals would be facing the frightening possibility of nearly 10 years of uncertainty this summer. Signing players is always a gamble, but longer deals drastically heighten the stakes.

A big unrestricted free agent payday if Stamkos gets even better

While the Lightning reduce their long-term risk, Stamkos can improve his long-term reward. If the league’s salary cap continues its upward climb as Stamkos approaches the unrestricted age of 27, the Lightning star could see an even bigger bump whenever he becomes an unrestricted free agent. He would have less “prime” seasons if he took a 10 or 12-year deal, so his third contract might suffer if he followed Ovechkin’s lead.

A question of motivation

Let me ask you something: if you received a $100 million (or more) contract for a job, would you feel the need to improve? Perhaps, but many people might think that their previous skills – and thus, a few bad habits – opened that door to obscene riches. Why change what made you become a multi-millionaire?

The risk would still be there with a shorter deal, but a 10-year deal almost begs for a few stagnant seasons. Both Ovechkin and Stamkos don’t seem like the types to rest on their laurels, but it’s only natural to lose a bit of steam without that big, dangling carrot of another monster deal.

Splitting the difference?

It’s true that the Bolts might be a bit uncomfortable about him becoming an unrestricted free agent, but that could be remedied slightly if the contract ate up his first unrestricted season or two. If a Crosby-inspired five or six-year deal wouldn’t work, they could always split the difference between the two stars and go for a seven or eight-year pact.

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Ultimately, the Lightning just need to keep Stamkos in the fold. The only true disaster would be losing him outright. Still, if you ask me, both sides would be better off if they followed the footsteps of Crosby and Malkin-type deals rather than agreeing to Ovechkin or Ilya Kovalchuk-type terms.

The Leafs’ remaining schedule is no cakewalk

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The Toronto Maple Leafs took care of business last night, sending the floundering Florida Panthers to a 3-2 defeat at Air Canada Centre.

Now comes the hard part for the young Leafs. They have seven games left to book their first playoff appearance since 2013, and their schedule is no cakewalk.

The Leafs’ next three games are all on the road, in Nashville Thursday, Detroit Saturday, and Buffalo Monday. After that, it’s a four-game home stand to close out the schedule, all against formidable opponents: Washington, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, and Columbus.

With a four-point playoff cushion, the Leafs can afford to lose a few games down the stretch. But head coach Mike Babcock doesn’t want his players looking too far ahead.

“I really believe with our group if we just focus on the day we’re playing and play right, we have a real good chance to win,” Babcock said. “That’s what we talk about and that’s kind of our mantra every day is just play right, play fast and we have an opportunity to be successful. We don’t get all caught up in the race. We know the standings, it’s in the paper every day, so we know that.”

The Leafs today sent goalie Garret Sparks back to the AHL. That can only mean good news for starter Frederik Andersen, who could play Thursday after missing last night’s victory with an upper-body injury.

Backup Curtis McElhinney got the nod against the Panthers, calling it the biggest game of his career. The 33-year-old then went out and made 25 saves to earn the win.

“It was great,” said McElhinney. “Getting a couple of goals in the first period there helped out a little bit and let me settle into it. It was a nice win.”

Parise ‘pretty black and blue’ after Wilson high stick, but injury not serious

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Zach Parise looked in bad shape after taking a Tom Wilson high stick to the face in Minnesota’s loss to Washington on Tuesday.

Thankfully for the Wild, Parise’s early diagnosis is a good one.

“He can see and is fine as far as that goes,” head coach Bruce Boudreau said on Wednesday, per the club’s Twitter account. “He’s sore in the upper body. I don’t think he’ll be out long.”

Boudreau went on to add that Parise was “pretty black and blue” and unlikely to play tomorrow, when Minnesota hosts Ottawa. That said, the club expects the 32-year-old to return next week.

It goes without saying that losing Parise is huge. The alternate captain has 17 goals and 37 points through 64 games this year, and is averaging 17:33 TOI per night. And for a Wild team that’s mired in a horrific slump — just three wins in its last 15 games — being down the services of such a vital contributor is costly.

Related: Stewart fought Wilson in response to the high stick

Stamkos ‘getting really close’ to return

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It probably won’t happen Thursday against the Red Wings, but Steven Stamkos is getting close to making his return for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“I think we can start putting him in the day-to-day category right now,” said Bolts coach Jon Cooper, per team beat writer Bryan Burns. “I don’t see him playing against Detroit. After that, I’d say it’s getting really close.”

Stamkos, who hasn’t played since November due to a knee injury, practiced today with his teammates. He took line rushes and even worked with the second-unit power play.

“Today was probably the best day yet,” the captain said. “Doing better than last time we talked and really feeling better each day now.”

Tampa Bay’s next game after Thursday’s is Saturday against Montreal.

The Lightning are three points back of Boston for the second wild-card spot in the East, but they do hold a game in hand on the Bruins.

A challenging offseason awaits Dean Lombardi

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For the 23rd time this season — the most in the NHL — the Los Angeles Kings lost a game in regulation after they outshot an opponent.

It happened last night in Edmonton, where the Kings outshot the Oilers, 35-29, but lost on the scoreboard, 2-1.

Afterwards, captain Anze Kopitar could only express his frustration.

“It seems like we’re beating the dead horse every night,” Kopitar said, per LA Kings Insider. “We outshoot teams, we out-chance teams yet we’re on the other side of the winning part, so bottom line it’s just not good enough. Whether that’s offensively or defensively, we’ve got to be better in both areas.”

It’s mostly offensively. For whatever reason, the Kings have the second-worst shooting percentage (7.6) in the NHL, with only Colorado’s (7.2) being lower.

Perhaps the Kings aren’t getting enough quality shots. Perhaps they don’t have enough quality shooters.

Probably a bit of both.

But it’s something that GM Dean Lombardi will need to address this offseason — assuming he can.

Roster-wise, the big problem for Lombardi is that the Kings have a pair of veteran wingers, Dustin Brown and Marian Gaborik, whose contracts look a lot like anchors.

Brown, 32, and Gaborik, 35, have combined for just 21 goals this season. Meanwhile, their combined cap hit is north of $10 million, and there’s plenty of term left on each deal.

Not helping? Both Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson are pending RFAs, and they’re in line for raises.

Oh, and there’s not much in the way of top prospects, either. In the past four drafts, only once have the Kings made a first-round pick. (Adrian Kempe went 29th overall in 2014.)

Eleven points back of the second wild-card spot in the West, the Kings are all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. They’re in Calgary tonight to take on the Flames.

Related: Kings give another kid a look, recall AHL All-Star Brodzinski