Other teams could make Tampa Bay miserable if Steven Stamkos reaches restricted free agency

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There are basically four big-ticket restricted free agents heading into this summer: Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, New Jersey Devils winger Zach Parise, Tampa Bay Lightning star Steven Stamkos and Nashville Predators blueliner Shea Weber.

On one hand, you have two players who aren’t far from the unrestricted age of 27: Parise and Weber. To little surprise, those two are comfortable with going into salary arbitration for their last restricted season while their teams are satisfied with the idea that other teams cannot drive up their prices. In the mean time, the Devils and Predators are allowed to try to hash out a longer contract before that date arrives. From a short-term perspective, it’s a nice fix. (We’ll see if they can keep those two great players beyond the 2011-12 season before determining the long-term impacts.)

Why Stamkos could be in line for an enormous contract

While Parise and Weber’s scenarios are intriguing, Stamkos and Doughty are in especially interesting situations since they are looking for their first contracts that aren’t limited by a rookie maximum salary and each player is far from the unrestricted age. The Kings have reportedly sent a “major offer” to their superstar defenseman, but as expensive as Doughty likely will be, the forward who went before him in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft should really break the bank.*

Every time a big-name forward in his ’20s is ready to sign his second contract, it’s the kind of moment that doesn’t just impact the team and the player; those deals often establish new ceilings for the amount of money they can receive and how long those contracts go.

An unusual (and potentially trend-setting) negotiation process

The thing is, we don’t have a ton of comparable moments for Stamkos’ situation. During the last two seasons, Stamkos has entered “The Conversation” with Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, yet the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t really hesitate to lock up their stars. It almost seemed like the Caps and Pens slammed the door on other teams’ dreams basically the day they could. (Teams are allowed to sign their restricted free agent one year before their entry-level deal expires; the Penguins and Capitals did so right away while the Lightning and Stamkos haven’t reached an agreement yet.)

(That being said, if you want to know whether Stamkos’ deal should be more like Crosby’s or Ovechkin’s contract, click here.)

For team management dweebs such as myself, it’s been downright fascinating to imagine the various scenarios for Stamkos, especially if Tampa Bay fails to sign him before he’s eligible for offer sheets from other teams (by July 1, 2011). If you’re a Bolts fan with more than a slight concern about the situation, Kevin Paul Dupont’s hypotheses won’t make you feel any better.

With the salary cap expected to be close to $63 million, a bidder could spike Stamkos’s pay as high as $12 million-plus per year (20 percent of the max is the limit). And for a kid who is only 21, a 10- or 12-year deal would not be out of the question.

For discussion’s sake, let’s say someone offered Stamkos 12 years at $144 million. He would be only 33 at the end of the deal. Come the end of the 2022-23 season, if the cap were to climb at the rate it has since it began at $39 million in 2005-06, the nut would be hovering right around $100 million by then. Over the final 5-6 years of the deal, $12 million would begin to look comfortable.

As for the Bolts, what would they receive if they chose not to match? Perhaps not as much as you think.

Per CBA compensation rules, any player who receives an offer above $7,835,219 brings the maximum package in return: four first-round draft picks.

(Click here for a breakdown of the new CBA compensation rules.)

Dupont goes on to point out that the catch with those draft picks is that a Stamkos-powered team wouldn’t be as likely to produced high picks in the draft. In other words, the Lightning could end up with four mediocre prospects (plus some cap space) in exchange for their star of the present and future.

If nothing else, another team could force the Lightning to commit a brutal amount of their cap room to Stamkos. In the nightmare scenario of a $12 million annual cap hit, the Bolts would have almost $20 million devoted to Stamkos and Vincent Lecavalier. Yikes.

A lot of people are heaping praise on new Bolts GM Steve Yzerman and rightfully so. That being said, we’ll see how good he really is this summer as he faces some extremely tough personnel decisions. Re-signing Stamkos to a deal that won’t wreck the balance of this team might be the tallest order.

* – Stamkos went first in 2008 while Doughty went second. Don’t be surprised if “Stamkos or Doughty?” becomes one of the draft’s great debates 5-10 years down the road.