Thunder and Lightning

Jun 28, 2016 -- 2:24pm
While the majority of the sports' world has been monitoring the contract status of Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder for nearly a year, the NHL has quietly produced their biggest free agent of all-time. 26 year-old Tampa Bay Lightning center, Steven Stamkos is poised to hit the open market this Friday seeking perhaps the largest deal in league history. His current team has made efforts to keep the superstar, but with so many other good players to take care of, the Lightning have little choice but to let the former 60 goal scorer walk.
Only three NHL players earn at least ten million dollars per season; the Hawks' Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews as well as the Kings' Anze Kopitar. Stamkos' 312 goals to go along with his nearly point-per-game career pace are likely to put him in the ten million dollar range or beyond. There are question marks though. His mysterious blood clot injury may scare a few teams, but his passion will never be questioned after he returned for game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals while clearly not at 100% health.
Like last season with head coach, Mike Babcock, there appears to be a big-three emerging as potential suitors for Stamkos. And just like a year ago, the big-three are exactly the same; Detroit, Toronto and Buffalo. Here are Stamkos options ranked from most likely to least likely:
1. Toronto: Even while finishing as the league's worst team in 2016, the Maple Leafs do not have an abundance of cap room. With that said, Lou Lamoriello and company will surely find a way to make Stamkos' cap hit fit. Thier rebuild is in full swing and the drafting of Auston Matthews will help the Maple Leafs become a contender in the near future. They already possess the league's best bench boss in Babcock, who will look to turn around this squad as fast as possible. Add in the fact that Tornoto is merely a half hour drive from Stamkos' hometown of Markham and it makes the Leafs the clear favorite for his services. Winning a Cup for an original-six team for the first time since 1967 and being hailed as the savior of one of the most storied franchises has to make Toronto the most appealing option in free agency.
2. Detroit: It took a lot of creativity and magic for the Red Wings to get to this point. GM Ken Holland was able to dump soon to be retired, Pavel Datsyuk's 7.5 million dollar cap hit off on the Coyotes. This gives the Wings the salary cap room they need to chase the most coveted free agent in league history. Unlike Toronto and Buffalo, Detroit had success last season. They have some good young talent as well in Gustav Nyquist and Dylan Larkin. If Stamkos' desire is to play for an original-six team, the Red Wings will do. The Wings would also soon become Stamkos' team after Datsyuk retired and as the career of 35 year-old Henrik Zetterberg winds down as well. 
3. Buffalo: The Sabres will try to catch "the big fish" once again in free agency. Last season, the team made a strong push for Mike Babcock and at the very least, drove his price up to unseen levels. The one thing Buffalo can offer more than any team is salary and term. Owner Terry Pegula will be more than willing to make Stamkos' the highest paid player in the league with an expected offer of 11-12 million per. Buffalo is a short ride for Stamkos to visit family in Canada as well. The one thing that may work against the Sabres is Stamkos' desire to play center rather than wing. The Sabres are set with top two centers, Jack Eichel and Ryan O'Reilly. Would the team be willing to move O'Reilly to the wing if position becomes a sticking point for Stamkos?
Other teams with rumored interest in Stamkos:
- Boston Bruins
- New York Rangers
- Vancouver Canucks

~ Brian Benesch (@IMean_ThisGuy)

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