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'Stiff competition' brewing for Stamkos

Money, position, geography, ability to win all factors in pending free agent forward's decision

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

BUFFALO -- Steve Yzerman went quiet and clenched his jaw. The interview period had begun for potential NHL free agents, and the Tampa Bay Lightning general manager said nothing had changed with the process of signing his captain, Steven Stamkos.

"I won't elaborate on it," Yzerman said on the floor of the 2016 NHL Draft at First Niagara Center on Saturday. "We're both very clear on our positions."

So unless somebody budges before the market opens Friday, Stamkos will become the biggest prize available, a 26-year-old forward who has averaged 0.55 goals per regular-season game in his NHL career, second only to Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin among active players.

Stamkos could command a contract with one of the highest salary-cap charges in the League, if not the highest, even though the cap has risen from $71.4 million in 2015-16 to $73 million in 2016-17. Chicago Blackhawks forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane each has the highest cap charge, at $10.5 million.

"I assume on a player like that the teams that have cap space that can fit him in will all be involved in this," Buffalo Sabres GM Tim Murray said. "So it's going to be a stiff competition, I'm sure."

Stamkos' agent, Don Meehan, declined to comment about the interest Stamkos had received since the start of the interview period and whether he would invite teams to make their pitch at Newport Sports in Mississauga, Ontario, the way he has invited teams to woo marquee free agents in the past.

The suitors beyond the Lightning are expected to include the Sabres, Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs, and the factors beyond money are expected to include geography, position and ability to win. Stamkos is from the Toronto area and prefers to play center over the wing.

Stamkos has loved Tampa Bay by all accounts, and the Lightning give him the best chance to win. They went to the Stanley Cup Final last season and came within a game of returning this season even though he sat out with a blood clot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He returned in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, which they lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

But he might not be able to make as much money with the Lightning as he can elsewhere because they have so many other players to fit under the cap, though he has to factor in the fact that Florida has no state income tax. Coach Jon Cooper prefers him on the wing.

The Maple Leafs could offer Stamkos a homecoming and a chance to play with Auston Matthews, the first pick of the draft this year. But would coach Mike Babcock want Stamkos at wing instead of center? Does Stamkos like where they are in their rebuild?

Video: NHL Tonight on the Red Wings, Datsyuk, and Stamkos

The Red Wings and Sabres could offer cities close to home where hockey matters but the attention is less intense than in Toronto. In Detroit, he would be the No. 1 center on a long-successful team looking to revitalize itself with a new arena opening in 2017-18. In Buffalo, he would play center and join Jack Eichel, the No. 2 pick in the draft last year, on a long-suffering team with a newly renovated dressing room and new practice rink.

"You've got to show them your blueprint," Murray said. "He's certainly going to look at your roster, I'm sure. I think there's going to be a lot of equals as far as money. There won't be a lot of equals as far as geography. But I think the one thing that can put a team over the top is teammates and who he gets to play with or doesn't get to play with. We're confident that we have good players that other good players would want to play with."

Can a team win the Stanley Cup with $10 million or $11 million -- 13.6 to 15 percent of its cap -- tied up in one player?

"Yes, I believe you can," Murray said. "Somebody else on your roster has to either pay the price or you have to walk away from other really good free agents. You have to allocate your money."

Murray said by drafting well you find players who can perform on relatively inexpensive entry-level contracts, and "that negates finding those $4 million guys that don't allow you to pay $12 million to a certain player."

"We've got a few entry-level guys right now that are pretty good players that makes it attractive to going out and getting a free agent that makes decent money," Murray said.

Yzerman said he was resigned to the fact that he can't control what others do.

"It's all part of the business," Yzerman said. "We all have decisions to make. Players have a right to decide. Whether it's unrestricted free agency or what, they have a right to make their own decisions, and I don't judge anybody on that."

Stamkos should decide in less than a week.

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