The Steve Stamkos Sweepstakes officially kick off on July 1st with multiple teams expected to line up outside the offices of Newport Sports to present their case on why the soon-to-be-free 26 year old superstar center(?) winger(?) should call their city his new home. Having been on the other side of this dog-and-pony show when Brad Richards left the Dallas Stars for free agency in 2011, sometimes the winners of an off-season signing frenzy are the teams that don’t come away with the prize.
I remember watching the live (and breathless) Toronto media coverage of the lead-up to the official noon start time and thinking, with all these team contingents lined up like contestants on the Bachlorette waiting to get a rose, any discussion of risk that usually accompanies contracts of this magnitude will not be part of the equation. The New York Rangers were the big winners that day landing Richards with a 9 year/$60 million deal, while we were roundly roasted by our local media and fans for getting nothing for our 1st line center.
Hindsight is always 20/20, but fast-forward 3 years. Richards is bought out by the Rangers with 6 years and $27 million left on his deal, while the Stars have both a new owner and the roster and cap room to land Jason Spezza in a trade with the Senators. This is isn’t a condemnation of Richards, as he was exercising his rights as a free agent to maximize his earning potential. As a player, when you have rest-of-your-life money put on the table, you have to take it. However, some of the ‘losers’ that day didn’t fare so badly. The Stars preserved the room they needed to make a better move when they needed to. The LA Kings, a jilted suitor that day in 2011, went on to win two Stanley Cups (one of which was against Richards’ Rangers).
This isn’t to say that teams shouldn’t make every effort to land Stamkos. Assuming he doesn’t re-sign with Tampa at the 11th hour, he is the first player in the cap era to hit free agency at his stature and age. The danger is that the chosen team wins the battle and loses the war, as their missing piece of the roster puzzle brings with it a contract made of lead. Even more dangerous this time around: with a flat salary cap for the foreseeable future, contracts signed in the summer of 2016 aren’t going to ‘shrink’ relative to the spending limit like they have historically.
If one thing is certain, it’s that the Stamkos sweepstakes will be Brad Richards on steroids. Same agency. Same playbook. So let the frenzy begin! And may the best team win.
Side note: I had a conversation with Richards in 2012 when the Stars, now with a new owner, were preparing to dive back into the adult pool of free agency. In preparing our recruitment material for the players, I was curious to get Brad’s take on the whole ‘sweepstakes’ process. I wanted to know what resonated with him from a message standpoint. His perspective (and I think this is common among players) was that while video greetings from Kobe Bryant were cool, the compelling factors were team and teammate-based. The players already know that Dallas is warmer than Winnipeg in January, and their agents are well aware of the different tax rates. The most effective presentations seemed to be the ones where the teams painted the best picture ON the ice as opposed to OFF of it.