MONTREAL — The big centre.
It’s the piece that’s been missing in Montreal for over 20 seasons and this summer Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin has a chance to get one.
April 30 is the immediate focus however. That’s the day the NHL’s draft lottery will determine which position the Canadiens—and the 13 other teams that missed the Stanley Cup playoffs—will be selecting from this June.
Montreal has a five per cent chance at the top pick, which will assuredly be used on 6-foot-2 centre Auston Mathews if they obtain it.
Exploring the trade market for a pivot solution would require creating a hole somewhere else on the roster, something Bergevin’s admitted several times he’s not interested in doing.
Just 36 hours after the Lightning lost the 2015 Stanley Cup Final to the Chicago Blackhawks, general manager Steve Yzerman was asked about his off-season priorities.
“Signing [Stamkos] is our no. 1 priority,” responded Yzerman.
“As our captain, he did everything that was asked of him,” he added. “He put the team ahead of himself. He played injured. He played hard. And one of the main reasons we got to the final is his attitude.”
Nine days later, Yzerman reportedly gauged the market on Stamkos’s trade value, kick-starting a year’s worth of speculation over where the player will lace up his skates in the fall of 2016.
Even as this year’s NHL’s postseason currently features an electric first round of play, Stamkos’ uncertain future remains a dominant talking point. The story has only gained steam with the Ontario native having suffered a season-ending injury in April and with the Lightning thriving in his absence.
Stamkos was initially scheduled to miss between one and three months, and he’s expected to make a full recovery after surgery to remove a blood clot from the area near his right collarbone.
In January 2015 Stamkos told the Toronto Sun he could envision himself signing a deal comparable to the eight-year, $84-million contracts Chicago’s Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane each signed in July of 2014.
Almost a year to the day that he made those comments, Stamkos would neither confirm nor deny a report from Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman stating Tampa’s best offer came in with an average annual value of $8.5 million.
There’s been no reported progress on a new contract since.
The incentive for Bergevin to swoop in is obvious.
His ability to fit Stamkos under the cap will depend on jettisoning off some fringe pieces of Montreal’s roster. Players such as David Desharnais and Lars Eller, who each make $3.5 million per season and don’t adequately fill top-six roles, are both unlikely to remain with the Canadiens.
Tomas Plekanec, who recently signed a two-year, $12-million contract that does not include no-trade protection, could also be moved. So too could defenceman Alexei Emelin, whose current no-trade clause becomes a limited no-trade on July 1.
As for what the Canadiens can offer Stamkos in addition to the money and security he’s seeking, a guaranteed spot as the team’s No. 1 centre is a starting point. It’s the position he’s been most successful at throughout his career, but Lightning coach Jon Cooper—who signed a multi-year extension of his own in December 2015—has often used him as a No.2 and pushed him to the wing where he’s less comfortable.
The Canadiens can also provide Stamkos with an opportunity to deliver his stated goal of winning a Stanley Cup in the near future.
MVP goaltender Carey Price, Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban, four-time 30-goal scorer Max Pacioretty, and emerging talents Alex Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher and Nathan Beaulieu represent a strong core he would only add to.
It’ll be up to Bergevin to convince Stamkos that the lifestyle and status he can achieve in hockey-mad Montreal mitigates media scrutiny and pressure from fans with through-the-roof expectations. The presence of childhood friend, P.K. Subban, can only help in this regard.
Convincing Stamkos to come to a city where over 50 per cent of his paycheque will go to taxes will require some creativity.
But Bergevin, who’s managed conservatively thus far, now needs to be bold and seize this opportunity.
Players like Stamkos almost never make it to free agency, and there’s no question he can fill a vacancy that’s help keep Montreal entrenched in a franchise-worst 23-year Cup drought.