Stamkos extension ‘No. 1 priority’ this offseason, says Yzerman

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Less than 48 hours after losing the Stanley Cup Final, Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman was already back at work.

During Wednesday’s end-of-year media availability, Yzerman told reporters he’d identified his top offseason priority — signing captain Steve Stamkos to an extension, which can be done by July 1 at the earliest.

The news doesn’t come as a huge surprise, given the Lightning don’t have many free agents to deal with. But it is the official start of what promises to be an intriguing negotiation.

Stamkos is heading into the last of a five-year, $37.5 million deal with a $7.5M average annual cap hit. Given he’s one of the NHL’s elite snipers and only turned 25 in February, it’s assumed he’s in line for a raise, with some suggesting he’ll be in conversation to become NHL’s next $10M cap hit, joining Blackhawks stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane (their extensions kick in next season.)

But is Yzerman ready to commit that much money to one player?

If this postseason showed anything, it’s that Tampa has a slew of talented youngsters on the verge of becoming stars. Chief among them was Tyler Johnson, the leading playoff scorer — and while both he and Ondrej Palat are locked in through 2017 at $3.3M per, they’ll almost certainly be getting raises on their next deals.

And they’re not alone.

Nikita Kucherov, a bargain at $711,666 annually, is a RFA after next year. So too are Alex Killorn ($2,5M), Cedric Paquette ($633,333) and J.T. Brown ($950,000). Once Victor Hedman’s $4-million-per-season deal is up, he’ll almost certainly top Matthew Carle ($5.5M annually) as the team’s highest-paid defenseman.

Oh yeah, almost forgot — when Hedman’s deal is up in two year’s time, so too is Ben Bishop’s.

Any potential cap crunch could, of course, be mitigated by how badly Stamkos wants to stay in Tampa. It’s clear the team has the foundation to contend for years to come, meaning his decision could come down to the age-old question:

What’s more important, winning or money?

Do consider what Stamkos said today.

“This was one of, if not the best teams I’ve played on,” he said. “Not just skill wise, but how we got along.

“This was the most fun I’ve ever had playing the game.”