In the summer of 2016, before they became two-time champions, the Lightning were an incredible, fast, young contender on the rise.
Its captain and best player, Steven Stamkos, was an impending free agent who had suffered some recent Cup Final heartbreak. He peeked out the door and wondered if the grass might be greener. He was courted by his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs and took phone calls from others, too.
Ultimately, Stamkos elected to stay put and accept then-GM Steve Yzerman’s offer for an eight-year extension at $8.5 million per season, turning down juicier cheques from Tampa’s competitors.
Taking less with hopes to win more.
Stamkos picked up the phone and dialled No. 1 defenceman and unofficial brother Victor Hedman — next in line for a raise.
“Certainly, as soon as I knew I was signing, we talked. And he goes, ‘OK, I’m getting mine done too,” Stamkos says. “Feels like forever ago, but obviously a decision that has worked out. It’s been the ultimate for both of us, and definitely happy that Heddy and I have been able to see this thing through.
“Who knows what would have happened [if I didn’t sign]? We’ll never know.”
When raises came due, one of the greatest cores of the salary-cap era all fell in line.
Sure, Florida’s tax benefits and year-round Jet Ski lifestyle didn’t hurt. But Victor Hedman ($7.875 million AVV) and Andrei Vasilevskiy ($9.5 million), Brayden Point ($9.5 million) and Nikita Kucherov ($9.5 million) all committed for less money than they would’ve received elsewhere.
But similar money to each other.
That same we-before-me culture us hockey folk glorify, the one that breeds fearless shot blocks and 1-0 victories, applied to the players’ bank accounts.
It’s not lost on management.
“Guys have made so many sacrifices to get here, physically, emotionally, financially, in some cases, to earn this opportunity,” Lightning GM Julien BriseBois says. “Now we get to chase a Cup in 2022 and that’s an incredible opportunity for our guys.”
Would the Lightning have captured a Stanley Cup had Stamkos & Co. not shaved a little off the top? Perhaps.
Reach three consecutive finals under a pandemic-flattened salary ceiling? Fat chance.
Securing elite high-end talent at reasonable rates allows executives to fill in the roster with true depth.
When free agency hits, does a star player wish to use leaguewide comparables to maximize his payday? Or is he content to adhere to the organization’s internal cap plan?
Stamkos set Tampa’s in 2016.
Patrice Bergeron set Boston’s in 2014, with studs like Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak and Taylor Hall sliding under Bergeron’s number ($6.875 million).
Now Nashville wants pending UFA Filip Forsberg to slide under Roman Josi’s team-high $9-million cap hit.
It’s an effective method to widen the window of contention.
And it gives a GM more leeway to seek creative deals for complementary pieces, the Nick Pauls and Brandon Hagels of the world.
“On the financial side of things and the nasty three-letter word called cap, having to navigate that,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper says of the GM’s challenge.
“Like I say about our general manager, you have to put your you-know-whats on the line. Because he makes some trades and people in maybe your position say, ‘I can’t believe he gave up this for that,’ and that takes a special personality to be able to do that.”
Which brings us to Colorado and why the Avs must seize the moment in front of them.
Because let’s be honest, Joe Sakic: With 10 pending UFAs, this is the best roster you’ll have for a while. Correct?
“What we do know is, we’ve got a great core at a great age. But, yes, we love the team we have here. We feel we got a real deep team, up and down the lineup,” Sakic replies.
“Is there uncertainty? Yeah. But every team has uncertainty now, especially with a flat cap. It makes it harder when you’re already [at the ceiling]. But I know the belief in our room is, they’re here. They’re here, and they’re so close.
“They have one expectation. And that’s to try and win the Cup.”
With July 13 speeding into view, Sakic is at risk of losing No. 1 goalie, Darcy Kuemper; No. 2 centre, Nazem Kadri; breakout power forward and Conn Smythe candidate Valeri Nichushkin; plus important role players Andre Burakovsky, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and Andrew Cogliano.
“I don’t think we’re the only team that will feel this in the next few years. There’s a lot of great teams, and you have to take advantage of every opportunity that you can get,” Sakic says.
“With that being said, we got a good young core.”
The burning centre of that core is Nathan MacKinnon, a 2023 UFA eligible to re-sign an eight-year extension as soon as July 13.
In many ways, MacKinnon takes his cues from hometown pal Sidney Crosby, the NHL’s posterboy for taking less so the team can win more.
Incredibly, Crosby has never been the league’s highest-paid player.
If he wants to secure the bag, sure, MacKinnon (sorely underpaid today at $6.3 million) could take a stab at Connor McDavid’s league-high $12.5 million AAV next summer on the open market. Alternately, he could follow the lead of Crosby and Stamkos and keep the band together.
“We have guys that we wouldn’t (otherwise) be able to bring in,” MacKinnon told Forbes in 2019 of his below-market salary.
“On my next deal, I’ll take less again. Because I want to win with this group.”
The question may become: Win once or win multiple times?
True, Sakic will lose Kadri and others, but Cale Makar, Gabriel Landeskog, Devon Toews, Samuel Girard, and Mikko Rantanen are on fair figures.
MacKinnon will some say in helping extend the Avalanche window in how much his next contract exceed Rantanen’s $9.2 million cap hit.
This is Colorado’s best shot to win a Stanley Cup, certainly.
But maybe not it’s last.
“I wouldn’t think so. I would hope not. But for sure we’re so close and we got as good of a team as we’ve had here in a long time. So, last year we thought we had a real good team — didn’t get it done,” Sakic says.
“This year we feel we’re close. We’re here [one win] away and hopefully we can make the jump.”