Sabres coach Dan Bylsma was walking on the NHL draft floor at the Niagara Center on Saturday morning when some young Buffalo fans called him over.
Leaning over the edge of a railing, one fan — in a No. 15 jersey of Sabres star Jack Eichel — yelled at Bylsma, "All I'm saying is 91 and 15. Come on!"
That No. 91, of course, is worn by Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, who is five days from becoming one of the most coveted unrestricted free agents in recent memory. Saturday's frenzied fan interaction was far from an anomaly for Bylsma, especially around downtown Buffalo.
"I get that a lot, all the time," Bylsma said with a smile. "Stamkos! 91!"
The Sabres are one of many teams planning to join the Stamkos Sweepstakes, which opened Friday night at midnight, with teams allowed to court the superstar center in a five-day interview period that leads into the opening of free agency this Friday.
"We're going to chase the big fish," Sabres general manager Tim Murray said.
Murray plans to contact Stamkos' representatives at Newport Sports, but he's not the only one.
The Red Wings freed $7.5 million cap space Friday by unloading the contract of Pavel Datsyuk, TSN reporting that the club might offer the max (for teams other than Tampa Bay) of seven years, up to $10 million annually. Stamkos' hometown Maple Leafs are expected to join the bidding, no doubt illustrating the Markham, Ontario, native's booming endorsement opportunities. Canucks GM Jim Benning might get fined for tampering for saying Thursday — before the interview window — that he would call Stamkos' reps.
"I assume on a player like that, the teams that have cap space that can fit him in will all be involved in this," Murray said. "It's going to be a stiff competition."
And that still includes the Lightning, with general manager Steve Yzerman saying he hasn't ruled out re-signing Stamkos, the face of the franchise who was drafted No. 1 overall in 2008.
Yzerman said the dynamics of this interview window won't change their process, pointing out "we're both very clear on our positions.
"I have no control over what other teams do," Yzerman said. "It's all part of the business, we all have decisions to make. (Players) have the right to make their own decisions, and I don't judge anybody on that."
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Teams technically can't make official offers in this interview period, only discussing "general parameters" of a deal.
But there's still wooing.
This is where general managers can legally speak with other team's players, who are due to become unrestricted free agents. There's no set way for these meetings to take place. In the past, Stamkos' agents at Newport Sports have hosted a number of teams, one by one, in their Ontario offices, each making their pitch. The Toronto Star reported that Stamkos' agent, Don Meehan, was seen in the Niagara Center stands chatting separately with Murray, Leafs president Brendan Shanahan and Red Wings GM Ken Holland.
Wild star Zach Parise recalled going through the whirlwind experience in the summer of 2012, when the then-Devils captain was entering free agency.
"It's fun," Parise said. "You're getting courted by every team. It's flattering. It's humbling. It's a really neat thing."
Murray, whose Sabres have an exciting young core, including Eichel, are expected to make a splash with their eventual offer; Murray referenced Saturday his belief that teams can win paying one player $10 million to $11 million a season, even mentioning the prospect of a $12 million salary. The highest-paid players in the league, by annual average, are Chicago's MVP Patrick Kane and captain Jonathan Toews at $10.5 million a season.
But there are many other aspects to sell. Buffalo is a short drive from Stamkos' family in Toronto, and Murray only sees Stamkos as a center, the All-Star's preferred position.
"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. The one thing that can put a team over the top is teammates, who he gets to play with and who he doesn't get to play with. We're confident that we have good players that other good players would want to play with."
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Each team has its case. The Red Wings are an Original Six franchise, have made the playoffs 25 straight years and move into a brand-new arena after next season. They could pair Stamkos with dynamic wing Dylan Larkin, and Detroit's not far from Toronto.
The Maple Leafs can pull at the heartstrings, not just the pocketbook, while also speaking to the rebuilding progress and all their young talent, including Friday's No. 1 overall draft pick, Auston Matthews. They have arguably the best coach in hockey in Mike Babcock. Now they have a goalie in Frederik Andersen, acquired last week from Anaheim. Win a Cup in Toronto, as a local kid especially, and you can be king.
Parise, who returned home to Minnesota on a 13-year, $98 million deal, said it's not easy.
"There's a lot of things you have to look at," Parise said. "You have to look at who has the (salary) cap room; the guy is going to be making $10 (million). You've got to find a team … with good young players, a spot where you're going to get utilized properly.
"It's tough being in that situation, being a captain. That's your team. The guys look up to you and respect you. It's not easy."
The cap-crunched Lightning likely won't be able to give the same money, at least in annual average, as others. It's believed Tampa Bay has offered Stamkos an extension in the $8.5 million average range, though it's unclear if that's for seven or eight years. The Lightning has the advantage of being the only team to be able to give Stamkos eight years; it's a maximum of seven for others.
But, from a competitive standpoint, it's hard to find a better fit for Stamkos than the Lightning. Stamkos has said all along he wants to stay in Tampa Bay and win a Cup here. He loves the city, the fans, team management and ownership, and feels like the Lightning is close to hoisting a Cup — and there's no state income tax. And there's still a chance, even if it seems like a long shot after the five-day window, he could re-sign.
"Regardless of what happens," Yzerman said, "it's part of the business."
Let the bidding begin.
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.