The traditional NHL free agent shopping bonanza opens at noon Friday, but for the Tampa Bay Lightning, the question isn't who they might sign, but rather who they have yet to sign.
While unrestricted free agents will be sitting phone side to filter through potential offers, the Lightning will be anxiously awaiting whether or not restricted free agent Steven Stamkos has signed a potential offer sheet with another team.
Tampa Bay's 21-year-old star center hits the free agent market at noon unless the Lightning are able to reach a deal with the league's top goal scorer over the past two seasons. Should the sides not be able to come to an agreement before then, Stamkos is free to sign an offer with another team.
Should that scenario present itself, the Lightning would have the right to match any offer, and Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman has stated previously he is prepared to do whatever it takes to ensure that Stamkos does not leave the organization, which includes matching any potential offer sheets. If an offer is considered too much to match, Tampa Bay would be eligible to receive four first round draft picks as compensation.
As of late Thursday, there was no sign of a deal being imminent to lock up Stamkos, who already has a Rocket Richard Trophy to his credit from 2009 when he tied for the league lead in goal and leads the league with 96 goals in the past two seasons.
"All I can say is that we are still working on it,'' the agent for Stamkos, Mark Guy, said in a text late Thursday night.
A message to Yzerman Thursday night was not immediately returned.
One team rumored to be considering submitting an offer sheet to Stamkos opted against the move on Thursday as the Philadelphia Flyers decided to focus on the unrestricted free agent market rather than the restricted route.
"We're not going to do anything on it,'' Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren told Comcast Sports Net in Philadelphia after three days of internal debate with the Flyers' organization. "We explored it and decided it's not the way for us to go at this time.
"We're excited about the additions we made and the direction we're going right now. We'll explore things tomorrow [when free agency begins] but a restricted free agency offer sheet is not the way we will go.''
Stamkos is obviously a big piece of the Lightning roster as one of the top players in the league, but he is also a big factor in what Tampa Bay might be able to do in the free agent market, although Yzerman is not expected to be a major player.
With seven defenseman under NHL contracts next season, it seems unlike the Lightning would seek out help on the blue line. But if a deal for goaltender Mike Smith is not reached before the market opens, Tampa Bay will be in line for a goaltender to share time in net with veteran Dwayne Roloson, who officially signed his one-year contract on Thursday worth a base of $3 million that also includes potential bonuses for playoff rounds won that bumps is salary cap hit up to $3.5 million.
A message to Smith's agent, Kurt Overhardt, was not returned as of late Thursday, but Yzerman said on Wednesday he hoped to be able to retain Smith for next season.
The Lightning could be looking to add a potential top-six forward with the expected losses of Simon Gagne and playoff hero Sean Bergenheim, and the familiar name of Brad Richards has been bantered around. It would seem, however, that Tampa Bay would need to know exactly what kind of money and salary cap a contract for Stamkos would look like before determining how much is available to take a realistic run at a player like Richards, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP for the Lightning during the 2004 Stanley Cup championship.
Otherwise, Tampa Bay might be in the market for more affordable options such as somebody like Ryan Shannon (Ottawa), Mike Rupp (Pittsburgh), Max Talbot (Pittsburgh), Drew Miller (Detroit) or Tomas Fleischmann (Colorado).