If I were newly-minted Leaf GM Lou Lamoriello, I would seriously consider pursuing Steven Stamkos when and if he becomes an unrestricted free agent (UFA) on July 1, 2016.
Speculations on the Stamkos Home Coming Have Been Heating Up for Quite Some Time:
To this date, we have already seen waves of debates surrounding three major issues pertaining to the Stamkos-to-Toronto speculation. First, there is ongoing uncertainty as to whether Stamkos would actually even make it to unrestricted free agency, especially given that Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman has made it clear that resigning their captain is the Lightning’s top priority. Second, there are those who advocate that it is a good idea for Toronto to pursue Stamkos, particularly since the Maple Leafs have lacked a true first-line centre dating back to the departure of Mats Sundin following the 2007 to 2008 season not to mention that Stamkos is a Torontonian who hails from Markham, Ontario. Third, there are those who believe that it is a bad idea for Toronto to chase Stamkos, considering that the Maple Leafs is in a full-scale rebuild and that Stamkos is not likely to want to play for a non-contender after reaching the Stanley Cup final this summer not to mention the steep price that Toronto would have to pay (both in terms and dollars) in order to lure Stamkos back to his hometown.
It All Comes Down to Whether Yzerman Can Extend Stamkos:
Whether pursuing Stamkos as an unrestricted free agent is an ingenious or poor idea is a matter of perspectives as there are convincing reasons that would support both sides of the debates. Indeed, both Jeff Langridge and James Tanner of The Hockey Writers have analyzed both positions in detail. However, the biggest sticking point remains whether Stamkos would even make it to unrestricted free agency in the first place as everything resides on whether Yzerman is able to convince the Lightning captain to put his signature on a new contract before July 1, 2016. However, assuming that Tampa Bay and Stamkos cannot come to a mutual agreement on a contract extension, then I believe that the Maple Leafs should chase Stamkos as an unrestricted free agent for four major reasons, contingent on Toronto not having to give Stamkos a full no trade clause and can front-load the contract.
Four Reasons Why the Toronto Maple Leafs Should Pursue Stamkos as an UFA:
First, Stamkos is only 25 years old and still very much in his prime. Even if Toronto will not be competitive for the foreseeable future, he should still be a productive player by the time the Maple Leafs are expected to contend again, which Mark Hunter predicted would be 3 to 5 seasons. After all, Stamkos averaged 84 points per full season between 2008 and 2015.
Interesting tidbit from Mark Hunter today on Leafs timeline to contention. Said it was 3-5 year window from now.
— Jonas Siegel (@jonassiegel) June 6, 2015
Second, in all likelihood, Toronto would have to extend a maximum (7 years at an average of $14.28 million per season if not more) contract to Stamkos in order convince him to sign with his hometown. Yet, if the Maple Leafs were able to refrain themselves from giving Stamkos a full no trade clause and front-load the contract (in correspondence with the cap hit), then there is minimal danger that it will become an untradable albatross contract or one that would require the hockey club to retain salary (e.g., the Kessel contract) in the event that the marriage does not work out for both parties and Toronto and Stamkos have to part way in the form of the former trading the latter. On one hand, with the absence of a full no trade clause, the Maple Leafs could still find interested trade partners to consummate a deal for Stamkos and in return, recuperate valuable assets (e.g., early-round draft picks and/or young high-end prospects) for the hockey club. If the Kessel trade were able to net Toronto a conditional first-round pick and promising prospects Kasperi Kapanen and Scott Harrington among other pieces, image what kind of return the Maple Leafs would get for Stamkos? On the other hand, the front-loading of the contract allows for more suitors interested in acquiring Stamkos to enter the bidding process in the event that Toronto has to trade him given that the salary commitment to Stamkos in actual dollars has been lessened with the Maple Leafs absorbing a large proportion of the payout in the early years of the contract. The front-loading of the contract, from a cap hit perspective, also allows for a potentially larger number of teams that have sufficient cap space to fit Stamkos into their roster to get involved in the negotiations if these potential suitors want to obtain Stamkos from Toronto.
Third, as the old saying goes, one man does not make a team. To this end, signing Stamkos would not drastically improve the competitiveness of the Maple Leafs, meaning that Stamkos’ presence will not improve Toronto’s position enough in the standing to take the hockey club out of a high draft position. In other words, not only would Stamkos’ tenure in Toronto not cost the Maple Leafs a future Marner or Nylander, but Stamkos could actually stabilize the line-up by serving as a leader (and possibly as captain if Backbock wants to give Stamkos the “C”).
Finally, if Toronto were in fact able to secure Stamkos’ service in summer 2016, and if the Maple Leafs were able to put Connor McDavid in a Maple Leaf uniform in three years, then Toronto could conceivably play both Marner and Nylander at the wing starting in the 2018 to 2019 season, in which case the Maple Leafs would feature two deadly offensive lines with two pairs of dynamic duos–Stamkos and Maner on one line as well as McDavid and Nylander on another line or alternatively, Stamkos and Nylander on one line as well as McDavid and Maner on another line). Of course, a lot of things would have to break in Leafs Nations’ favour in order for this final scenario to emerge based on the rule of conditional probability but never say never.