Red Wings, others turn free agency focus to 'big fish' Stamkos

Posted at 5:42 PM, Jun 26, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-26 17:42:42-04
BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) -- As team executives began gathering on the arena floor an hour before the start of the NHL draft's second round Saturday morning, a video highlighting former No. 1 selections began playing on the big-screen video boards.
The first player featured just happened to be Steven Stamkos, the top pick in 2008.
At a time when Arizona-born center Auston Matthews was selected first by Toronto, and on the heels of the buzz the league's expansion into Las Vegas created, the Tampa Lightning captain's presence during the two-day draft in Buffalo was hard to overlook.
Stamkos is set to be, as Sabres general manager Tim Murray put it, the potential "big fish" in the league's free-agency period, which opens Friday.
Buffalo, Boston and Vancouver are among the teams to have already expressed interest in Stamkos.
And others, as in the case of Toronto and Detroit, have freed up more than $10 million in salary cap space with an expectation they will jump into the bidding for the four-time, 40-goal scoring star.
Meantime, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman isn't ready to shut the door on the possibility of re-signing Stamkos.
"I haven't ruled out anything just yet," Yzerman said. "The process hasn't changed."
Stamkos heads a list of pending free agents that includes St. Louis center David Backes, New York Islanders forward Kyle Okposo and Los Angeles forward Milan Lucic. Other players could be available by trade, including Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler.
Montreal Canadians general manager Marc Bergevin dismissed the latest round of speculation that he's shopping star defenseman P.K. Subban.
And Penguins GM Jim Rutherford was blunt in telling the NHL Network that he's not trading star forward Evgeni Malkin.
The Red Wings became the latest team to jump into the Stamkos sweepstakes after GM Ken Holland made the deft move of trading the rights to star forward Pavel Datsyuk to Arizona on Friday.
Though Datsyuk will play in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League this season, the final year of his $7.5 million contract with Detroit still counted against the Red Wings' salary cap.
The trade left Detroit with as estimated $12 million to spend in free agency, and drew praise from Ducks GM Bob Murray, who said: "Kenny Holland, I think he was the winner today. He dumped a whole bunch of money."
Holland won't specifically say whether he's interested in Stamkos, but made clear he's prepared to use nearly every penny under the $73 million cap to add talent.
"We're prepared to go to the cap if the players are available," Holland told The Associated Press. "I'm not going to talk specific players, but it was no doubt to free up money. We've probably got $11- to $12 million to spend of cap space, depending on how somebody wants to look at it. So we've certainly got lots of space, and we can certainly explore the market."
Canucks GM Jim Benning was so eager to express his interest in Stamkos, that the NHL is determining whether he broke the league's tampering rules for telling a Vancouver radio station he plans to contact Stamkos' agents.
The problem was, Benning spoke on Thursday, two days before he was allowed to openly discuss pending free agents still under contract.
In Buffalo, Tim Murray at least waited until Saturday to put the Sabres on Stamkos' radar.
"The next conversation I'll have with them is, ask if Steven is going to be available on July 1, and if he would be interested in Buffalo," Murray said. "I have to ask that question, or I wouldn't be doing my job."
Murray noted geography could play a factor for Stamkos, who grew up outside of Toronto.
Though that would favor the Maple Leafs, it wouldn't necessarily eliminate Buffalo, which is a two-hour drive from Toronto, or Detroit, which is about four hours away.
The Lightning have one edge. Under NHL rules, they can re-sign Stamkos to an eight-year contract, while other teams are limited to making seven-year offers.
It's an advantage not lost on Yzerman, who didn't dismiss the possibility of using that eight-year signing option even if it means trading Stamkos.
"It's an interesting idea," Yzerman said. "Losing him for nothing or losing him for an asset: I'd love to get an asset."
 AP Hockey Writer Greg Beacham in Anaheim, California, contributed to this report.