By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — Former Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Brian Lawton dropped a rumor that is sure to excite Bruins fans and percolate with local media leading up to the July 1 start of NHL free agency. Appearing on TSN Radio Monday morning, Lawton said his list of frontrunners to land pending unrestricted free agent center Steven Stamkos includes the Bruins as the No. 3 team. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Lightning are 1-2 on his shortlist of frontrunners.

Lawton, now an analyst for the NHL Network, has not been general manager of the Lightning since being dismissed in 2010, but has a strong connection to current Lightning GM Steve Yzerman. He represented the former Red Wings great as his agent during his time running Lawton Sport and Financial.

The Bruins could certainly afford to sign Stamkos from a financial standpoint. They have over $21.6 million in cap space to work with, according to Spotrac. Stamkos will presumably require a contract with an annual cap hit equal to or greater than that of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews’ $10.5 million with the Chicago Blackhawks.

Bruins GM Don Sweeney said at the NHL Draft in Buffalo that the Bruins will “explore all players” in terms of free agency opportunities and would not rule out pursuing Stamkos’ services. Unfortunately, if you listen to Lawton on TSN you can hear the hesitation in his voice when mentioning the Bruins as the No. 3 frontrunner – it sounded more like he needed to throw a team in there and the Stamkos sweepstakes is really just a two-team race.

A Stamkos acquisition still seems extremely unlikely for the Bruins, not the least of which because of the team’s lack of a recent history swinging big moves or closing major deals. Mr. Lawton listed the myriad reasons for Stamkos to sign in Toronto and also said that there’s still a “very, very big chance” he re-signs in Tampa. Nevertheless, Mr. Lawton just made the next week of Bruins talk a lot more fun.

Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at mdolloff@985thesportshub.com.

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