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The Stamkos Sweepstakes: Where Should the NHL’s (Potentially) Highest-Profile Free Agent in Years Take His Talents?

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Getty Images

Ever since Steven Stamkos began this past season without preemptively reupping his contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning, the hockey world has taken great interest in whether or not he would hit the open market. As the season unfolded, rumors flew and social media activity was parsed. In the past week alone, Stamkos-related topics of discussion have ranged from tax rates to tampering fines to private plane tracking. And we’ve still got another 48 hours until the free-agency period officially begins Friday at noon.

Should Stamkos choose not to sign a contract with the Lightning by midday Friday, he would become one of the highest-profile players in recent memory to test free agency. The 26-year-old Stamkos is one of the league’s most electric offensive talents. (Only Alex Ovechkin has scored more goals since Stamkos came into the NHL in 2008.) He is expected to earn quite a raise over his current cap hit of $7.5 million annually. The question is who will be the team signing his new paychecks.

According to TSN’s James Duthie, “12–15 teams” — roughly half the league — have made contact with Stamkos since the interview window opened June 25. But a handful of franchises are positioned to be the most likely, or at least the thirstiest, suitors. Here’s a rundown of some of the teams that have been routinely mentioned as in the running for Stamkos lately, in descending order of how much hype they’ve stirred up.

Toronto Maple Leafs: In July of 2014, after LeBron James announced a return to his native Cleveland, The Hockey News published a story wondering whether the Leafs would ever have a hometown hero of their own — like maybe Stamkos, who grew up in the greater Toronto area. Stamkos, whose typical Twitter activity is limited to hashtaggy, branded stuff likely keyed in by PR interns, favorited the THN tweet.

He would later say it was a slip, but the action set off a round of breathless speculation nonetheless. (Creeping the tweet favs is the new reading the tea leaves.) Since then, Stamkos has had a few similar digital incidents, all of them involving “liking” tweets that suggested he should come join the Leafs, and all of them supposedly just a slip of the finger. It’s an absurd thing to pay attention to, sure, but this is the Leafs we’re dealing with.

A move to the Leafs would mean a return to Stamkos’s native land and a roster spot on one of the highest-profile franchises in the sport. After years of drama and struggle, the Leafs now employ a mostly stable and respected front office. The team has numerous top prospects, including the latest top overall draft pick, Auston Matthews.

But the Toronto glare can put people off. There are questions about whether head coach Mike Babcock agrees with Stamkos’s desire to play center, rather than wing. No one can seem to agree on just how big of a factor the high Canadian tax rates might be. I’d suggest keeping an eye on this space: Maybe a new passive-aggressive clue will emerge soon.

Buffalo Sabres: During last weekend’s NHL draft in Buffalo, a local Sabres fan supposedly found a misplaced piece of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s draft strategy in a hotel lobby and posted it online. When one of his buddies tweeted at the Lightning to tell them, they asked that the post be taken down. “Sure,” he replied, “as long as Stamkos signs with [the] Sabres.”

While there are definite question marks on defense and in net for the Sabres, the team does have one of the most attractive collections of young talent in the league and seems poised for a big jump in the standings. Buffalo is a rabid sports town salivating for good news. And everyone there would also love taking some revenge on Toronto: Last season, the organization was stunned when free-agent coach Babcock chose to go to the Leafs.

Tampa Bay Lightning: On the surface, you’d think Stamkos and the Lightning would still be going strong. Tampa, one of the most talented teams in the league, has a Hall of Famer as GM and a young whippersnapper as coach, and is located in a place that boasts dolphins and no state income tax. Plus, as his current squad, the Lightning have the advantage of being able to offer an eight-year contract. (All the other teams are capped at seven.) In January, they reportedly put an eight-year offer worth $8.5 million a year on the table.

But it’s looking increasingly unlikely that Stamkos will return to the Bolts. The team has made back-to-back deep playoff runs in the past two seasons, but both have been bittersweet for Stamkos. Last year, he was despondent after the Lightning fell to Chicago in six games. This season, when he was sidelined with blood clots, Tampa went on just fine without him. And there have been small signs that he and head coach Jon Cooper don’t see eye to eye: During the Cup final last season, Cooper made a few strange decisions about when to deploy Stamkos, and the coach reportedly believes that Stamkos is best suited for the wing.

One possibility, up until noon Friday, is that the Lightning could execute a sign-and-trade. This would give Stamkos the opportunity to have an eighth year on his contract while still choosing where he wants to land. (He has a no-trade clause and would have to approve any trade.) And it would give the Lightning something in return. “Never given it a thought so maybe I should think about it,” is how GM Steve Yzerman recently received the idea.

Detroit Red Wings: When the Red Wings traded the rights to Pavel Datsyuk (who is now returning to Russia with a year left on his contract) to the Arizona Coyotes, an immediate implication was that the shedded cap space ($7.5 million) might help make room for a big Stamkos contract. The Wings are retooling their roster as their longtime core players grow older and retire. They have a brand-new arena set to open next year, and having Stamkos there for the ribbon cutting? [Kisses fingertips.] But the Wings seem further away from contender status than some of the other teams in pursuit.

Montreal Canadiens: Stamkos has been buddies with P.K. Subban since they were lil’ cherubs in neck guards. But Subban’s future in Montreal has never been certain, and, as ESPN.com’s Craig Custance points out: “Stamkos surely has noticed that the Canadiens signed his good friend to a monster contract and shortly thereafter weren’t ruling out trading him. That might raise a red flag.”

Boston Bruins: It’s come to this:

Vancouver Canucks: Before the draft last week, Vancouver GM Jim Benning went on the radio and chatted happily about his plans to pursue free agents like Stamkos and Milan Lucic. His team was fined $50,000 for tampering. I don’t think this series of events has a happy ending.

New York Rangers: Man, what the heck happened between 8:55 a.m. and 6:56 p.m. Tuesday?

Las Vegas: Forget everything you just read, because we’ve found the perfect outcome.