Warning: apc_store(): Potential cache slam averted for key 'w3tc_blogs.thescore.com_object_c8478405b42a12eba8c0dbf6a24e2873' in /opt/blogs/wp-content/plugins/w3-total-cache/lib/W3/Cache/Apc.php on line 41 Stamkos' likely signing takes away one more Leafs free agent | Backhand Shelf | Blogs | theScore.com

At a wedding recently while I was jovially doing laps between my table and the open bar, a waiter was making the kind of pleasant conversation that waiters make when they’re pretending to like their jobs. Naturally, talk turned to hockey, because that’s the only way for men who aren’t enjoying themselves to converse in Canada.

When our friendly waiter–we’ll call him Pedro, because my foggy memory seems to think that was actually his name–rounded the table for another pass, he had some ideas for the Leafs future and Brian Burke’s apparent summer of wild spending and/or trading. While pouring another glass Pedro proudly proclaimed “I hear Burkie is going after Stamkos, Lucic, and Kesler.”

I promptly drank the contents of the glass he poured, and asked for another.

Sorry, Pedro, but it looks like at least one of those pipe dreams is about to die.

The chances of Steven Stamkos leaving the Sunshine State as a restricted free agent already resided somewhere between slim and really, really slim. They then travelled into super slim territory when Tampa Bay’s 45-goal scorer told Damian Christardo of the St. Petersburg Times that a deal is close to completion.

“I think it’s close. I don’t think it’s far off. As close as we are, it’s not something I’m really worried about.”

“I think things are going to get done.”

Lightning fans are getting at least mildly concerned and going through the typical anxiety pains as July 1 creeps closer. If Tampa Bay is unable to secure Stamkos prior to that date, other teams will be able to sign him to an offer sheet. Christardo writes that Tampa’s deal with Stamkos is expected to be somewhere in the neighbourhood of $7 million annually.

At the ripe at of just 21 years old Stamkos has a league-best 96 goals over the last two seasons. He finished second in goals with 45 this year, and tied Sidney Crosby for the Rocket Richard Trophy last year. Earlier this month Lightning general manger Steve Yzerman expressed confidence in the team’s ability to lock down one of the league’s elite players, telling the Tampa Tribune that signing Stamkos is their primary goal this offseason.

“We haven’t explored anything else and we don’t intend to look at it any other way.”

And that’s the attitude he should be taking, of course. While the Lightning would be compensated handsomely with four first-round picks if he leaves as a restricted free agent, losing Stamkos would clearly be a devastating blow.

The rumoured deal that will see $7 million per year in Stamkos’ pocket is a sizable sum, but it’s a cap hit the Lightning should easily be able to sustain given their over $22 million in cap space, with other core stars like Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis signed long-term. As a comparison to gauge Stamkos’ likely market value, Corey Perry was the only player in the league with more goals than the pride of Markam, Ontario this year, and he signed a five-year extension worth $26.6 million in 2008. That works out to a cap hit of $5.3 million annually.

Yzerman has to deal with nine other free agents, eight of which are unrestricted. That list includes UFA forwards Simon Gagne and Sean Bergenheim, who had a combined cap hit of roughly $5.6 million last year. Throw Teddy Purcell into the mix–a restricted free agent who contributed $750,000 to Tampa’s cap last year–and 39 percent of Tampa’s regular season offence is entering some form of free agency.

Tampa also has to deal with two unrestricted free agent goaltenders, and the entire blueline with the exception of Mattias Ohlund is slated to dive into the warm and inviting free agency pool by the end of next season (five this summer, three next summer).

Yzerman will do his best job of bending without breaking, a process that could lead to the departure of Gagne and Bergenheim. But that’s the simple cost of doing business when it comes to both winning games, and avoiding a disgruntled fan base.

Bodies will move, Stamkos will stay, and Leafs Nation will turn to the next steaming hot rumour (Brad Richards! Jeff Carter!).