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Contract for Steven Stamkos has downside, still worth it for Tampa Bay Lightning

Here's the good news:

By re-signing Steven Stamkos on Tuesday, the Lightning has ensured it will keep the core of its team together for next year and beyond.

And the not-so-good news:

By re-signing Stamkos on Tuesday, the Lightning has ensured it will be difficult to add to the core of its team next year and beyond.

Um, yippee?

Sure, it is wonderful to know that Stamkos will be skating around in a Tampa Bay uniform for another five years. He absolutely needed to be signed. And, as the length of the negotiations indicated, it was going to take every nickel available to get it done.

But, man, is this going to make life hard for general manager Steve Yzerman.

Between Stamkos and Vinny Lecavalier, the Lightning has committed more than $15 million in salary cap space to two players. Add Marty St. Louis to the mix, and that's more than $20 million in cap space for three players.

That's not unheard of, but it is fairly unusual in today's NHL. Only a handful of teams had such top-heavy salary structures last season. We're talking Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin paychecks or Alexander Ovechkin/Nicklas Backstrom deals.

The Lightning does get a break with the salary cap increasing to $64.3 million this year, but it still limits the kind of players that will fill out the roster.

This is why Simon Gagne is not back in Tampa Bay. This is why the Lightning ignored other goaltenders to re-sign soon-to-be 42-year-old Dwayne Roloson to a cost-efficient one-year deal. And this is why Brad Richards had to stop laughing before he could tell the Lightning that, no, its offer was not going to be quite enough.

In a perverse sense, this is all kind of wonderful. The Lightning has three of the top offensive players in the NHL, and most GMs would kill to have that kind of problem.

But it is, ultimately, something of a problem.

"You have the choice, you either pay them the going rate in the market or you elect to let them go and acquire more pieces at a lower price," Yzerman said Tuesday. "With good players you do your best to hold on to them.

"Steven Stamkos was the first pick in the draft. The things an organization has to go through to get those kind of players is difficult and painful. We're just dealing with reality. Really good players are going to get paid. There's only so many of them out there."

To Yzerman's credit, he appeared to play the negotiations flawlessly. He correctly anticipated what Stamkos would be worth on the restricted free-agent market, keeping in mind teams would have to surrender four first-round draft picks to sign him.

Instead of overpaying Stamkos in June, Yzerman took the chance that there would be no offer sheets in July. When that came to pass, he got the deal done.

Along the way, he re-signed defenseman Eric Brewer to a four-year, $15.4 million contract. So with only 17 NHL players signing deals with values above $15 million, the Lightning was responsible for two of the biggest contracts of the offseason.

The downside is Yzerman needs to find high value in low places. He can't afford $2 million players on the third line, so he needs someone to step up the way Sean Bergenheim or Dominic Moore or Teddy Purcell did last season.

And he still needs to keep some flexibility with the salary cap because Victor Hedman will have to be re-signed next season.

"Our payroll had to go up just to keep our players. It's difficult to add players in that situation," Yzerman said. "Our key signings were to keep these players. That's the way it is for the Lightning. How do we get better? Our young guys have to take a step forward. Our veterans have to come in in tiptop shape."

Stamkos certainly qualifies as the type of player who can take a step forward. Forget the slump late last season. We're talking about a 21-year-old who is still learning what it means to be a marked man in the NHL.

He is a scoring savant, wrapped in the psyche of a grinder. He listens. He plays hard. He cares. He is just about the epitome of what a team wants in a cornerstone player.

And this was not a lifetime deal. The Lightning bought out only one year of unrestricted free agency, and Stamkos will be in his prime when the contract ends. That means he still has plenty of incentive going forward, and the Lightning is not on the hook forever.

Ultimately, Stamkos was worth this contract. And that goes for the cost in bank statements and salary cap space.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Contract for Steven Stamkos has downside, still worth it for Tampa Bay Lightning 07/19/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 20, 2011 10:31am]
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