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Can the Habs afford to sign Steven Stamkos?

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With a couple of moves, Canadiens' GM Marc Bergevin could put himself in a position to add sniper and perennial All-Star Steven Stamkos to the roster. Does it make sense for the Habs? Would Stamkos be the missing link that can take Montreal to its next Stanley Cup?

Stamkos collects fist-bumps from his Lightning teammates
Stamkos collects fist-bumps from his Lightning teammates
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Montreal Canadiens had a terrible season, but are not a team in need of a rebuild. The Habs have key pieces at every position and should they stay healthy, will not only make the playoffs but likely win a series or two with the current lineup. Over the last four seasons, the Canadiens have struggled to score goals (they sit 15th in goals scored since 2012), most fans and pundits agree the team's most glaring need is a top-six forward who can score goals. 

Steven Stamkos certainly fits the description. Since 2012, he's the second highest-scoring player in the NHL with 133 goals. With Alex Ovechkin locked up until 2020/21, Stamkos is the most attractive UFA asset the NHL will have seen in a long time, and will no doubt have many suitors. 

The Tampa Bay Lightning are currently leading their first-round playoff matchup against the Detroit Red Wings despite Stamkos being out of the lineup with blood clot issues. While a long and somewhat serious injury is a terrible way to end a tenure with a team, it's the reality currently facing the Lightning, who have been unable to sign their franchise player to a contract extension thus far.

Should they make a long run in these playoffs, there is a possibility he could return to the lineup and help the team compete for a Stanley Cup; it's also possible Stamkos has played his last game for the club that drafted him back in 2008. If Tampa does well without him, could they choose to walk away from their cornerstone forward in order to maintain the ability to keep everyone else? Jonathan Drouin has been playing stellar hockey since being recalled at season's end. He cannot fill Stamkos' skates by himself, but his emergence could make losing Stamkos an easier pill to swallow.

Can the Habs afford Stamkos' contract?

One has to figure Stamkos will draw at least $10M on the open market should he get to July 1st as a free agent, and possibly well more. As it stands today, with several players to re-sign, Montreal would have $6.6M in space should the cap stay flat heading into 2016/17. It's expected the salary cap could increase by $3M, which would give Montreal just shy of $10M on hand. 

They only have 36 contracts locked up for next year and need to bring back or add some players to complete the roster, but it's not far-fetched to think they could shop more expensive players to other teams to make the necessary space for Stamkos. Up front, David Desharnais has one year left at $3.5M and they could trade him or even buy him out if necessary. On the blue line, they could find a trade partner for Alexei Emelin's $4.1M contract, especially since his no-movement clause loosens up this summer. They will replace Tom Gilbert's $2.8M with a cheaper alternative in the form of Mark Barberio, who needs a new contract but might not fetch such a high amount. 

If Bergevin can unload just one of his hefty contracts, it would give him the wiggle room necessary to add a player like Stamkos. The biggest risk in doing so is the large contracts the Habs have to sign in following years. At the end of the 2016/17 season, Alex Galchenyuk will be seeking a large pay increase, especially if he continues to score as he did in the latter half of this season. Andrei Markov's contract will be ending and if he can and wishes to continue playing, Montreal will need a few million dollars to make that happen. Nathan Beaulieu will be up for a renewal next summer also. 

In two summers' time, Lars Eller and Tomas Plekanec will both be UFA's and if they're both still with the Canadiens, will want significant money to remain in Montreal. Then there's Carey Price. Not only the team's MVP, he's become the crutch upon which management leans to gloss over the team's principal weaknesses. Should Montreal have a good next two seasons, it will be an easy decision for Price to stay, and if he does, he is likely to secure himself a contract even more rich than P.K. Subban's; he understands he is the team's best player and that without him, the Canadiens fall apart. It would not be like him to hold the team ransom, but it's every athlete's right to get as much money as they can while they are able to. 

The bottom line is Montreal can afford Stamkos... for now.

Long term repercussions

A player like Steven Stamkos doesn't hit the UFA market every year. Whether he stays in Tampa Bay or elects to sign elsewhere, he will not only eat up a significant portion of a team's salary cap, but will also be demanding a long-term contract. Under the current CBA, the most any team not named Lightning can offer is seven years. That would imply a large multi-million dollar contracts on the books until the end of the 2022/23 season, when Stamkos will be 33 years-old. That's not ancient, but we've seen pure goal-scorers' production fall off a cliff after the age of 30 before.  

Subban is on the books for $9M per year, Price and Galchenyuk will have huge raises over the next two years, and then Max Pacioretty will look to earn a massive increase from his current $4.5M when he's up for renewal in 2019. The Canadiens will have too many big price tags to carry unless the salary cap makes a significant climb, which is unlikely given current economic conditions. Let's say Stamkos conservatively gets $10.5M, like the Kane and Toews deals in Chicago. Price might fetch $11M or more. Galchenyuk and Pacioretty should both find themselves north of $7M before long, and we'd be looking at $44.5M, which is likely going to be at least half the salary cap by then. For only five players. 

It's starting to look pretty clear that should the Canadiens take a run at signing Stamkos, one or more key players will end up being moved in the long run, in order to not cripple the long-term health of the team.

Is it worth it?

The Montreal Canadiens have a winning history. However, there are now many fans of the club who've not seen a Stanley Cup parade in their lifetime. It's been 23 years since the last Cup win for the Habs and many would tell you they would do just about anything to see it happen again soon. A player of Stamkos' caliber could be the missing piece that helps this dream become reality. If they sign Stamkos, it would be an acknowledgement they are trying to win at least once in the next two years. 

After that, changes would have to be made to the core of the team in order to extend that cup window. It's not impossible, but it would be difficult to achieve properly and it would come with a lot of media and fan reactions. Even if it means winning Cups, losing fan favourite players in Montreal is not always a popular move. The question then becomes "what are the Canadiens willing to do to win a Stanley Cup?"

Would Stamkos be interested in playing for Montreal?

Sure he would, he'd be silly not to. Montreal is the most storied franchise in the league and transcends sport. What player has donned the Habs' jersey and not said it was a special feeling? The Canadiens have a leg up on Stamkos' hometown Toronto Maple Leafs in that they are closer to Cup contention than Toronto in the immediate future. Tampa Bay fell short in the Cup final and Stamkos' broken leg cost him a Gold Medal in Sochi. He is a professional and he wants to win. Montreal could easily give him that opportunity. 

We've all heard about the friendship between Stamkos and P.K. Subban. We've had the infamous minor hockey picture of them as teammates shown to us ad nauseam every time Montreal and Tampa Bay play one another. The Habs have used current players to attempt to lure new talent to the team, as recently as last year, when Andrei Markov and Sergei Gonchar reached out to Artemi Panarin to sell him on the benefits of playing in Montreal. Could Subban leverage his relationship with Stamkos to secure a free agent signing? Sure, it's definitely possible, who would be a better salesperson than P.K., who loves both the team and the city? One might have to discount the rumours that Subban could be traded prior to free agent day on July 1st, however.

How likely is it?

There's not definitive word from Stamkos' camp on what will happen this summer. He's a Tampa Bay Lightning player until he isn't. His current team is in the post-season while the Canadiens are on the driving range. Until July 1st, we won't truly know what will happen. There's lots of rumblings of what could happen; he could sign an extension and try to win with Tampa, he could go home and play in Toronto, he could join a young group in Buffalo, he could sign in Montreal and help them bring the Cup back to Canada. But they're all just rumours and don't mean much on their own. 

Steven Stamkos is one of the very best players in the NHL. He's fun to watch, he scores goals and helps his team win games. There will be 30 General Managers asking themselves if they can acquire him this summer. Only time will tell. Montreal should have a better shot than some other teams, but is by no means a surefire destination above all others.

Would you want Marc Bergevin to sign Steven Stamkos?