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Forecasting Steven Stamkos’ free agency: Six possible landing spots for Lightning star, including Maple Leafs

Now that the Tampa Bay Lightning have been eliminated from the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs, all eyes turn to the future of captain Steven Stamkos. After 16 seasons with the Bolts, Stamkos is set to become a free agent this summer, and he will get plenty of interest from the other 31 teams.

Stamkos has been such an integral part of the Lightning for his entire career that it’s hard to imagine him playing for any other team. That’s the kind of effect 1,137 career points and two Stanley Cup runs have. Stamkos is a Tampa sports legend, but his time in the city may be coming to an end.

Even though Stamkos may not bet at the very top of his game anymore, teams would still fall all over themselves to get a 40-goal scorer and point-per-game player with 128 games of playoff experience.

With Stamkos’ future being murky, I have decided to look at a few possible fits for the 34-year-old forward. They may not all be perfect, and some are more likely than others, but all of these teams could work as landing spots for Stamkos when he is weighing his options in a couple months.

Let’s take a look at six ideal destinations for Stamkos if he does reach free agency on July 1.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Projected 2024-25 cap space: $18.6 million

I’m not sure whether he has photos of himself in Maple Leafs pajamas à la John Tavares, but this would be something of a homecoming for Stamkos, who grew up just outside Toronto. If the Maple Leafs can’t cobble together an epic first-round comeback against the Boston Bruins, major changes might be on the way this offseason. Assuming that is the case, I know a guy with come gas left in the tank and a winning pedigree. Stamkos would only add to an already dangerous power play, and he wouldn’t have to carry the offensive load in Toronto. The problems arise when you look at the balance sheet for the Leafs. They are projected to have under $19 million to spend on roughly half of their roster, and even if they did jettison one of their bigger contracts via trade, would the Maple Leafs want to use that flexibility to add an aging veteran in the twilight of his career?

Nashville Predators

Projected 2024-25 cap space: $19.4 million

The Predators have already been thrown out as a potential landing spot for Stamkos in free agency, and it does make some sense. Ryan McDonagh and Luke Schenn, a couple of Stamkos’ former Lightning teammates, reside in Nashville. Preds general manager Barry Trotz emphasized the additions of “serial winners” last offseason. Stamkos checks that box. It has also become abundantly clear in the postseason that Nashville still needs some help on the power play, and Stamkos could only help in that area. The question for the Predators — and Stamkos — is a matter of timing. Does the team see itself competing for a Cup in the next couple of seasons? If so, maybe both sides find a deal more appealing. If Nashville is committed to a long-term vision, it’s probably best for both sides to find other options.

Florida Panthers

Projected 2024-25 cap space: $19 million

If Stamkos is feeling petty, I have just the team for him. For starters, going to the Panthers would be a convenient way to get revenge. Stamkos wouldn’t have to leave sunny Florida, the team is already a Stanley Cup contender and it just happens to be the Lightning’s biggest rival. When it comes to fit, Florida does have some key pending free agents this summer. Sam Reinhart headlines that group, but Vladimiar Tarasenko and Nick Cousins also need new deals. If one or more of those players don’t return, that could open up some space for a veteran scorer like Stamkos. Once again, the pesky salary cap is an impediment here. If the Panthers re-sign Reinhart, that probably eliminates any shot of Stamkos going to Sunrise, if it existed in the first place. If Florida can’t keep its 57-goal-scorer around, Stamkos might be an adequate consolation prize.

Detroit Red Wings

Projected 2024-25 cap space: $29.1 million

Steve Yzerman’s team just narrowly missed the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and this upcoming offseason seems like a pivotal moment for the Red Wings’ rebuild. Bringing in Stamkos would help infuse a championship culture into a locker room that hasn’t seen the postseason since 2016. Stamkos could also add some offensive pop that was lacking at the top of Detroit’s lineup in 2023-24, with the exception of a few key players. This potential marriage may come down to the length of the contract. Do the Red Wings, a young team trying to build toward being an NHL powerhouse once again, want to commit long-term to a 34-year-old forward? I have to imagine not, but a short-term deal could be interesting for both parties.

Utah TBD

Projected cap space: $51.2 million

This one is a bit of a wild card. I’m not sure how interested Stamkos would be in going to a newly relocated franchise in the final few years of his career, but stick with me. Utah owner Ryan Smith has wanted an NHL team in Salt Lake City this season, and he might want to make a big splash in free agency right out of the gate. Signing Stamkos would qualify as a cannonball-level splash for Utah. The ex-Coyotes do have some intriguing young pieces and a nice collection of prospects. It’s not crazy to think they could contend for a playoff spot with a few key additions over the summer. This one is probably a longshot, but it would be intriguing to see a player of Stamkos’ caliber choose Utah and lead the franchise into a new era.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Projected 2024-25 cap space: $12.6 million

Let’s be honest. As fun as it is to envision these scenarios wherein Stamkos dons a different sweater at the end of his career, it would only be fitting that he retires as a member of the Lightning. Stamkos is arguably the best player in franchise history, and he has a couple of Stanley Cup rings to back up that claim. As is typically the case, Tampa will have to endure a salary cap crunch this offseason, especially if it wants to keep Stamkos. That might mean both sides have to compromise a little on the new contract, but just get it done. Stamkos means too much to the franchise and the community, and he deserves at least one more shot at a Cup as a Bolt.

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