There used to be a time when the prolific logo of the Maple Leafs would be enough to entice a hometown native to suit up for the team he idolized as a child, given the choice.
But that was before the salary cap constrained the budget of all 30 NHL franchises. And the Leafs were, what’s the word? – good.
Yes, Steven Stamkos learned his craft on Toogood pond in Unionville just north of Toronto where he strapped on the blades as a youngster. The rest is history. He was a midget star for the Markham Waxers before becoming a standout in junior and an eventual NHL first-overall pick by Tampa Bay.
He’s already had a 51-goal and 60-goal season for the Lightning, plus an Eastern Conference championship last year. Only a horrific leg injury kept him from being named to Team Canada’s Olympic team in Sochi in 2014.
And now that he’s a pending unrestricted free agent, should fans in the 416 and 905 area code simply expect that the Leafs are the frontrunners in the event that Stamkos doesn’t re-sign in the Sunshine State?
Check your calendars. This isn’t the turn of the century anymore. Pat Quinn (rest his soul) is no longer the coach and general manager. Gone are the days when Curtis Joseph (Keswick, Ontario) and Shayne Corson (Barrie) frothed at the mouth at the prospect of suiting up for the blue and white.
Come to think of it, Toronto didn’t even have a so-called hometown advantage back then, either. Remember in 2000 when the Leafs pursued then Kings stud defender Rob Blake, a native of Simcoe, Ontario? Didn’t quite work out. While all eyes were fixated on the possibility of luring Ontario boy Eric Lindros away from the Flyers, Blake was quietly shipped to Coloardo as the Eastern time zone was sleeping. Oh, and Lindros didn’t come over either, until much later, in the downswing of his career.
Yes, the Leafs did get Durham Region’s Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk for limited stretches. But, was either player in the prime of his career as the 25-year-old Stamkos will be when July 1st rolls around?
The city on Stamkos’s birth certificate isn’t the primary factor in determining whether he’ll be donning the blue and white colours any time soon. More concerning: should the Leafs even pursue him?
Stamkos is certainly the most immensely talented free agent in his mid 20’s to potentially become available to the highest bidder, without compensation. Of that, there is no doubt, even given his offensive struggles so far this season.
However, a player of that stature will command eight figures, easily.
Is the salary that Stamkos will command consistent with the Leafs’ rebuild? When they have to look at re-inking RFA Morgan Rielly next year? When there’s money that could be better spent on a top-flight goaltender (no apologies, Messrs. Reimer or Bernier)?
The acquisition of Stamkos would come at too high a price for the Leafs, a franchise whose blueprint is finally, correctly, established after too many failed ‘quick-fix’ attempts. See: Kessel, Phil.
If Stamkos doesn’t return to Tampa, some NHL team will pay his duly-deserved market value, while at the same time handcuffing the rest of its budget. And, that’s all well and good, provided that they are on the cusp of being a contender.
The Leafs aren’t even going to be in that conversation anytime soon.
Just like the so-called “hometown advantage”, Toronto should just forget it.
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(photo credit: RantSports.com)