The Stamkos watch continues, plus the latest on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Milan Lucic and more in your NHL rumor mill. 

TSN.CA: Pierre LeBrun touched on  “Twittergate”,in which Tampa Bay Lightning star Steven Stamkos “accidentally” liked a tweet suggesting the Toronto Maple Leafs should pursue him. He feels it puts an unwelcome light on Stamkos’ contract status and raises questions over his relationship with coach Jon Cooper.  LeBrun doubts the two sides have even started exchanging salary numbers right now.

SPECTOR’S NOTE: The combination of a lack of real trade rumors (compared to last month), the Lightning playing in Toronto next Tuesday and ongoing uncertainty over Stamkos’ future in Tampa Bay is fueling the rise in speculation linking him to the Maple Leafs.

I like SI.com’s Allan Muir‘s recent take on the matter.  He points out the Leafs are an option for Stamkos via free agency in July, but they’re not the only one and probably not the best one. Leafs fans won’t like hearing that, but it’s a good point. 

Should the Maple Leafs pursue Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins?

Should the Maple Leafs pursue Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins?

Speaking of Stamkos, The Leafs Lunch crew debated if the Maple Leafs are better off pursuing the Lightning captain or going after a younger center like Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins via trade.

SPECTOR’S NOTE: If the Oilers shop Nugent-Hopkins, they’ll likely want a top-two defenseman in return. That means the asking price is Morgan Rielly, Leafs fans. Not Jake Gardiner or Dion Phaneuf. Morgan Rielly. Suddenly, Nugent-Hopkins isn’t such a palatable option. 

Darren Dreger reports the Edmonton Oilers have recalled defenseman Nikita Nikitin to showcase him for teams that have some interest in him. There’s some observers who believe the Oilers could be willing to absorb part of Nikitin’s $4.5 million cap hit to facilitate a deal.

SPECTOR’S NOTE: I believe picking up part of his cap hit is the only way they can move him, unless they’re willing to pick up a toxic contract, which defeats the purpose of moving Nikitin in the first place. 

Dreger notes there’s been considerable speculation this season regarding the struggling Columbus Blue Jackets. If they fail to improve in the coming weeks, they could make some moves.

SPECTOR’S NOTE: Dreger noted stars like Ryan Johansen and Scott Hartnell have been mentioned in trade rumors, but I’ll be surprised if they’re the ones traded. The asking price for Johansen will be expensive (a top young player, first-round pick and top prospect is my guess), while Hartnell’s $4.75 million cap hit and no-trade clause are reasons why he could be tough to move. Guys like Cam Atkinson and Kerby Rychel have been frequently mentioned this season as possible trade candidates. Wouldn’t surprise me if they’re the ones most likely to be dealt. 

LeBrun reports the Los Angeles Kings are interested in re-signing pending UFA winger Milan Lucic, who’s enjoying playing for the Kings this season. The club recently reached out to the Lucic camp and appear keen to open contract discussions in the new year. Their priority remains re-signing center Anze Kopitar.

SPECTOR’S NOTE: Kings GM Dean Lombardi undoubtedly saw Lucic having a long future in Los Angeles when he acquired him last June. Still, as NBC Sports’ Mike Halford observes, the Kings have over $50 million invested in just 14 players for next season. A new contract for Kopitar (which could be close to $10 million annually) will take a big bite out of that remaining space. Lombardi must also ensure he’s got long-term cap space to re-sign Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson in two years’ time. Halford wonders if Lucic might consider a pay cut to stay in Los Angeles. Lucic also claimed last summer that playing for the Vancouver Canucks was his childhood dream, so we can’t rule that out.