Samuel Taylor Coleridge killed the albatross.
The large bird was once considered a sign of good fortune among sailors and seafarers, but Coleridge's 18th century poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, eventually reversed popular perception to consider the albatross as a symbol of an inescapable weight of one's own wrought. Indeed, the metaphor has even filtered into sports, where an "albatross contract" hamstrings a franchise for multiple seasons as wasted salary space. David Clarkson? Albatross. Vincent Lecavalier (Free Vinny)? Albatross. Avoiding an albatross has become akin to fighting the injury bug or battling a cold streak.
This characterization of the albatross, though, is entirely unfair. Before the poem's prominence, an albatross was seen as aiding and lifting a group, not anchoring it- and for good reason; the bird, in fact, is one of nature's most efficient energy users, as it sustains flight only through wisely exerted soaring. Similarly, an NHL team can efficiently soar to great heights with an albatross contract- though in my rehabilitated definition of an albatross contract, the bird's name signifies only substantial salary and seasonal commitments, with the effects of that commitment varying. The term and large cap charge can even become beneficial to a team stocked with an albatross or two, as we will see later on in this post.
Enter Steven Stamkos. The Lightning center is the team's cornerstone, and Tampa Bay has enjoyed 7 productive and highly salary efficient seasons from the 2008 1st overall pick. Stamkos has been everything the Lightning needed from a franchise altering top choice, but the captain now requires a contract extension that figures to be one of the largest in NHL history. The specter of an enormous salary cap charge already seems to loom over the Lightning, prompting speculation and worry over future cost-culling measures made necessary by the mega-deal- but in fact, management and fans alike should be welcoming the new deal, not dreading it. Massive forward contracts propel teams or neither help nor harm them more than they sink them, and Stamkos and his expected figure seem a good bet to trend towards positivity. To illustrate this, let us first consider Stamkos' fellow albatrosses and their current statuses on their own franchises.
The Flown Paths of Current Albatrosses:
Salary Efficiency of Top Forwards
To further explore Stamkos' future effect on the Lightning salary cap, I considered the top 39 forward salary hit players (in other words, all those who carry a cap charge above 6 million for the 2015-2016 season) against my previously explored Goals Above Replacement per Percent of Cap figure (for more on GAR/% if you're not familiar, check out my previous FanPost here on Raw Charge). 3 seasons of GAR numbers were used to increase the sample of play without retreating far enough into the past to consider older players' bygone results and to help reduce noise from issue seasons (like the shortened 2013-2014 Steven Stamkos campaign); the abbreviated lockout season was adjusted for to achieve this result.
The results were far less sobering than I anticipated, especially after Chicago's forced disassembling as a result of the Toews/Kane extensions. Few of the deals here are truly fantastic; after all, the average efficiency is in line with Ryan Callahan's of this past season (which isn't as bad as it sounds, considering his produced GAR showed him to have a borderline career year), but most of them also avoid starkly bad territory, which I consider to be anything below 0.80. More than half float above the perfectly acceptable 1.2 GAR/% mark, and the ones that don't mostly belong to aging players whose production has tailed off (not applicable to the 25 year old Stamkos, whose max deal will see him through prime to post-prime but still undiminished seasons) or to players who have never flashed Stamkos' elite talent. The only true comparable players are Phil Kessel and Patrick Kane, and while Kane's situation is slightly troubling and may represent the worst-case outcome for the Stamkos extension, Kessel is not quite as effective as one may think- in fact, his best Goals Above Replacement numbers pale in comparison to Stamkos' and his defensive play statistically speaking is much worse than even the middling Stamkos.
To contrast, Corey Perry's inoffensive super deal and Getzlaf's favorable long-term pact together on the internal cap Anaheim Ducks (both figures, by the way, in the top 10 of cap hits, where Stamkos' extension will certainly land) showcase the advantage of the albatross. Consistent elite play over multiple seasons dovetails neatly with enormous cap hits that dwindle in how much percentage of salary cap they occupy over time (due to the constant salary cap limit increases), allowing the team to carry them as weighty but unobjectionable in early seasons and enjoy them as stealthily cost-effective ones in later seasons. Perhaps a better example of this ideal- the Getzlaf and Perry deals are too fresh at their ages to be adequately comparable to the young Stamkos- are the fantastic forwards of another California team: the San Jose Sharks. Questionable moves elsewhere aside, the Sharks have created an amazing situation for themselves from a forward salary standpoint; Joe Thornton's once jumbo average annual value now settles 24th among all forwards as his play remains at a superstar level, and Patrick Marleau followed a similar schedule for his own contract. Meanwhile, San Jose has repeated the process with great deals for Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture that will only get better as the % of cap continues to slide for both. Producing these albatross contracts has actually allowed San Jose to do more business in other areas of roster management rather than less, contrary to what many expect to happen with these colossal agreements.
Considering these hefty deals, then, has shown that super forward salary commitments have produced favorable efficiency situations just as often as they have produced unpleasant ones, and utilizing their application effectively pays huge dividends for franchises not only on that asset but on creating space for other assets as well. Further, even the mid to poorer tier of these contracts are palatable should they be encountered; teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers have more than made it work with superstars on average efficiency deals like Evgeni Malkin and Rick Nash. Relatively few completely franchise crippling transactions of this category exist, and the risks of them occurring is outweighed by the benefits of enjoying an efficient one or even a middle-of-the-road one. The forward albatrosses have overall been much less precarious than perceived.
Of course, it's possible none of this will apply to Steven Stamkos. But if it does (and it should), the future looks bright for the Lightning because projecting the course of Stamkos' contract and play looks acceptable at worst (akin to Nash/Malkin) and wonderful otherwise even with cautious estimation.
Forecasting Stamkos' Flight:
Projecting the Contract and Play of Steven Stamkos
In the top left corner of this image, Stamkos' past performance and contract are shown mainly to convey what realistic expectations for his Goals Above Replacement should be but also to illuminate his past efficiency (I excluded his rookie season because 7 year old results from an extremely young player under a befuddled coach and regime seemed irrelevant to consider). The top right showcases my conservative salary cap limit projections. Modest $2 million increases are assumed; should my estimations be correct, the salary cap ending year 2021 will have increased by $10 million in the 5 seasons following the 2015-2016 campaign. This increase is less than the $12 million increase from season 2010-2011 to season 2015-2016, which included a shortened lockout season reducing revenue and the recent malaise of the Canadian dollar, so calling it safe may be an understatement; I expect a much higher upper limit in 2020-2021 especially with expansion looking inevitable (as expansion would fill the league's financial coffers), but am deliberately acting pessimistically so as to err on the side of undervaluing the Stamkos extension's efficiency.
The meat of the information lies in the GAR/% prognostications for the first 5 years of various possible cap charges with three different GAR estimations- one optimistic and based on his early play, one cynical and grounded in recent results, and a career average which lies in the middle. I show the three different average annual values (I highly doubt Stamkos' AAV will exceed $12.5 million or fall much below $10.5 million) and three different GAR forecasts to illuminate the majority of the possible outcomes and to allow the reader to make their own conclusions as to which outcome is most likely.
I also included the GAR/% averages of the other top forwards as a handy reminder of what the typical top forward's efficiency looks like and limited the projection to the next 5 seasons (despite the extension likely lasting 8 seasons) because extending beyond year 5 could be quite problematic. Stamkos' play could be much different then, the error from my cap projection will compound over time and be unacceptable to even consider, and there's always the possibility of Stamkos' camp deciding to limit the term to less seasons.
With the forecast itself explained, let's consider its results and implications. My first thought is honestly excitement. Even with this outlook's worst scenario (12.5 charge with Stamkos performing as he did over the past three seasons ["3 yr avg 2 in the graphic"]) the contract never veers far into particularly bad status and stabilizes over time; as I mentioned earlier, it is most comparable to the Evgeni Malkin and Rick Nash situations, which require asset massaging elsewhere on the roster but still heavily contribute to the success of Stanley Cup contenders. Meanwhile, the bullish consideration puts the extension into the sphere of current Ovechkin/Crosby now, Datsyuk/Thornton later- those are 4 game-breaking contracts and not unrealistic visions for a talent of Stamkos' caliber. When a process indicates the poorest outcome as flatly workable and the best outcome as elite, that process's result is cause for celebration.
Even further to consider are the circumstances of my prognosis and of the details of Stamkos play, which both support the idea that the Stamkos albatross has the potential to be very efficient for Tampa Bay. As I mentioned, the forecast intentionally limited the salary cap to a lower figure; one can realistically expect the actual cap to beat this predicted placeholder, and if it does, the Stamkos contract will fill less of the percentage of TB's salary cap than this projection shows. What's more is that Stamkos' career GAR and "3 year average 2" GAR are hampered by his broken leg season of 2013-2014, which caused him to miss a large chunk of the season and limited his effectiveness in any games afterwards. All players deal with down seasons and injuries, and this is reflected in the use of the 3 year averages during the initial analysis of the top 39 salaried forwards, but none is as significant as a broken leg that essentially snapped what was looking to be a career season along the lines of his earlier 2010-2012 work into his worst results.
Given this information and my own personal evaluations of Steven Stamkos the hockey player (in my opinion, he is more than capable of playing like he did early in his career and more likely to do so than to remain merely a very good star as he is right now), I consider Stamkos GAR averages from his early career to be more likely to manifest themselves in the future than his recent numbers, and also see no reason to expect a deterioration in these results over the life of the contract, especially in its early years. Predicting Stamkos to produce 23-25ish Goals Above Replacement seasons at least during the first five campaigns seems most realistic and likely, and this places the extension's efficiency firmly between the GAR/% of the "average 1" and "career" models- wherein the upcoming Stamkos deal is a decently efficient contract (1.55ish GAR/% year 1, 1.75ish GAR/% year 5) and certainly an upper tier albatross even if it pushes closer to $12.5 million (I expect the average annual value to be around $11.5 million myself, but consider any number between $10.5 million and $12.5 million as mostly equal in probability of occurrence).
Overall, then, and in simpler terms, the fair expectation of Steven Stamkos' imminent new contract and his performance over that contract shown above sees his deal as cost-effective when compared against fellow superstar forwards and the league as a whole. He is more likely than not to be a positive asset for the Lightning not only as a raw win producer but also as an efficient usage of salary resources.
Managing Steven Stamkos' massive contract won't be easy, despite all that I've explored above. Even as an efficient allocation of resources, the contract's mere present value weight combined with the existing other unwieldy deals the Lightning are saddled with guarantees that difficult decisions will have to be made with concerns for the salary cap.
However, stomaching a few tough years and a sub-optimal trade or two (or failure to pursue an efficient trade/free agent) with the super deal will be very much worth it for Tampa Bay, and signing the captain to whatever deal he demands is a no-brainer with this analysis in mind. The sheer ability that Stamkos brings to the table, the high likelihood of this talent persisting over the course of the contract, and the simple fact that the salary cap upper limit increases with every passing season means that the middle to late seasons' money spent will be earmarked extremely well. Not only does his projected contract seems to stack up well against all players- it also seems to stack up well against players of similar cap situation and talent as well.
In the future, the Lightning will be able to enjoy a top tier talent performing at an effective price, and will be able to use extra salary space elsewhere thanks to a disproportionate amount of production coming from one source of salary cap space. Just as the albatross flies efficiently using its great weight as an asset rather than a detriment, so too can a franchise operate efficiently by signing a valuable asset to a long-term and weighty albatross contract. Steven Stamkos is the perfect candidate to be that efficient albatross for the Tampa Bay Lightning.