Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY SPORTS
Before we get into this topic, let’s make a few things clear. Firstly, Steven Stamkos isn’t a traitor for choosing to stay with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He was under no obligation to sign in Toronto; ultimately, the choice was his, and he went with what he thought was best for him. Secondarily, this isn’t the time to go “oh, well, the Leafs were better off without him anyway”. Because that probably isn’t true either.
We have to be honest with ourselves here. The Toronto Maple Leafs have two pocket cores on their roster, aged 25-27 (Jake Gardiner, Frederik Andersen, Nazem Kadri, and James van Riemsdyk) and 18-22 (Morgan Rielly, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, and the logjam of secondary prospects below them).
Signing a 26-year-old superstar centre was not counter-productive to the Leafs’ odd’s of success. Taking on the second best goal scorer of our generation would not have thrown off the roster composition of this team. It would not have ruined the Leafs in the long run. Hell, it may have helped; a competitive Leafs team drives HRR and, thus, the salary cap, and having Stamkos be the centre of attention would have likely helped keep down the cost of the big three prospects’ second contracts.
Signing players just for intangibles is dumb, but signing a superstar who’s gone on multiple chases for the cup, has worn a C on their chest, and understands the scope of the Maple Leafs organization would have been a perfect fit.
Let’s not pretend that the Leafs didn’t really have interest or capacity. As long as Nathan Horton was on Long Term Injured Reserve to start the year, they had the cap space. Dion Phaneuf is an Ottawa Senator now; there was presumably room for Stamkos to attempt to step into a leadership role. The team obviously had interest; we know that Brendan Shanahan talked with Don Meehan at the draft, and we know that there was a meeting at the MLSE offices that involved the mayor and Canadian Tire’s CEO.
We’re going to find out at some point where this took a turn back. Maybe Stamkos never intended on leaving and used tried to use Toronto as leverage, and panicked when it failed. Maybe the Leafs didn’t table up a strong enough offer, thinking that they had this in the bag. Maybe there was a stipulation both sides weren’t ever going to see eye to eye on. But let’s not pretend that adding an elite player in the same age pocket as half of your core without assets goes against a rebuilding plan.
That doesn’t mean that Toronto is screwed forever, though.
|Year||Cap Hit||Known Key Renewals / Harder to Replace Holes Left|
|2017/18||$40,070,832||Zaitsev, Bozak, Brown? Hyman?|
|2018/19||$19,750,000||Van Riemsdyk, Komarov, Nylander, Rychel? Soshnikov?|
|2019/20||$15,700,000||Gardiner, Marner, Matthews, Kapanen? Timashov?|
Salaries not including Nathan Horton, who will likely be LTIR’d into eternity
Toronto are in a very good position to take advantage of what they have right now and carry it into the foreseeable future. A look at Toronto’s depth chart lists eleven forwards, seven defencemen, and three goalies under contract under the age of 24, and 22 additional players awaiting their ELC’s.
Three of these players are considered to be top ten (if not top six) prospects in the world right now. Auston Matthews just went first overall with an extraordinary amount of well-deserved hype attached to him. William Nylander followed up his draft by chasing and smashing records for his age groups in the SHL and the AHL in his first two years. Mitch Marner is going to need a bigger trophy case.
The other guys? Some will hit, some will miss. But with 43 swings at the proverbial baseball, they should be able to round a few bases and build up a supporting cast. Ideally, as Toronto establishes their core group, support prospects will be able to be plugged in and moved as they become too costly; think the Chicago Blackhawks model, with a goal of fewer Bryan Bickell endings.
There’s a very reasonable foundation in this organization; certainly, one with a higher chance of sustainable success than any other management group has gone to battle with throughout the Cap Era. They’ll only have more wiggle room to work with next year as well, with next to no significant contract concern and Brooks Laich, Milan Michalek, Colin Greening, Matt Hunwick, Jonathan Bernier, and Stephane Robidas coming off the books.
What probably changes the most this year is the immediate expectation. A team with Stamkos to go with the new rookies, upgraded goaltending and expectation of percentage readjustment is probably a safe bet to make the playoffs, despite being a dead-last team a year prior. Now, the team will most assuredly be better, but only in an absolute best case scenario will they be a team capable of doing some damage.
But hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day. If the Leafs are mediocre next year, they’re mediocre with a super young, mostly waiver and expansion-exempt core and a bunch of deadweight about to come off the books as the rest of the league panics about the Las Vegas draft.
The road to success is a long one, and the Leafs recognize that and have given no reason to believe that they haven’t recognized that over the past year and change. The Leafs are just as capable of moving on without him, never put themselves in a position where they relied on him, never risked anything to get him, and from the looks of it, didn’t build the plan around him. Not even the worst of the Leafs regimes would’ve put all of their eggs into turning seven days of future conversation into a single seven-year deal; there’s no indication that’s the case here.
Where they go from here is probably only known in the confines of their war-room. But I doubt there’s a reason to panic. Let’s not go into denial and claim that he wouldn’t have helped things move along, but don’t forget that there’s a foundation in place worth keeping an eye on in the long-term.