Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY Sports
There haven’t been many constants in the recent history of the Toronto Maple Leafs, but the club’s fans have always had two things to hang their hat on: their collective disappointment and their giddy pipe dreams.
Tampa Bay Lightning superstar Steven Stamkos, a pending unrestricted free agent, fits into the latter camp for now. Though he may fit into the former camp eventually, Bob McKenzie’s recent take on Stamkos’ situation at TSN.ca should serve to stiffen pipe dreams across the GTA.
Ever since those fateful Twitter faves a few summers back, Maple Leafs fans have indulged in vibrant visions of watching Stamkos sport the blue and white. And as negotiations on a potential contract extension between the Lightning and Stamkos have dragged on with no end in sight, the prospect of watching the local kid who once scored 100 goals in a season for the Markham Waxers play home games at the Air Canada Centre has started to seem more realistic.
Mike Babcock coaching the Maple Leafs was also a popular pipe dream in the 6ix not too long ago, right?
So the centre of the hockey universe waits with bated breath, eagerly following every development concerning the ongoing contract negotiations. There hasn’t been much in the way of hard news out of Tampa Bay regarding contract talks between Stamkos’ camp and the Lightning, which could be a good or a bad thing from a Maple Leafs perspective.
On Wednesday night, though, TSN’s Bob McKenzie, the consensus dean of hockey reporting, suggested that the negotiating process is still so preliminary that the two sides may not have exchanged specific salary figures at this point.
Now before we get to what McKenzie said, we should discuss his qualifiers because he laid them out at length and he did so for a reason. This is McKenzie’s personal opinion. McKenzie’s opinion is as informed as any you’ll read in hockey media, but McKenzie has not confirmed this information.
“Lightning GM Steve Yzerman and Stamkos’s agent Don Meehan have agreed to a veritable news blackout,” McKenzie writes of the scant flow of information emanating from either camp.
“Since no one is commenting on any of this,” McKenzie later added, “we’re left to try to figure things out on our own, which is a dangerous endeavour.”
That crucial context presented, here’s the meat of McKenzie piece, which you should read in full by the way, and his sense of what’s going on between the Lightning and the NHL’s most lethal sniper:
… I believe Tampa wants to sign Stamkos and Stamkos wants to stay with the Lightning.
But I can’t help but feel as though there are unspoken reservations from each side. I think the Lightning are still trying to get their head around how much to pay any one individual on a team, even if he’s a marquee talent such as Stamkos. I think Stamkos is waiting to see how the season plays out, both for him and the Lightning, before he makes any long-term commitment. It has got a weird “we do mostly, sort of, love each other but let’s be really careful about the public displays of affection” vibe to it. So much so that I don’t believe either side – Stamkos or the Bolts – have put any specific numbers on the table or there’s been any hard horse trading like there has been on Kopitar with the Kings.
I’ve come across all sorts of people in the game who are convinced Stamkos is as good as gone. I can find others who say we shouldn’t read too much into the seeming snail’s pace of negotiation and odds are in favour of Stamkos eventually re-upping in Tampa.
While I’ll reiterate once more that this is McKenzie’s honest opinion, as I’ve long said: no one has ever gotten rich betting against McKenzie on NHL happenings.
There is still a lot to iron out here. The Lightning are still one of the league’s most promising young teams – I’ll consider them to be a contender-quality club even if they lose Stamkos for nothing this offseason – and the two sides still have time to get a deal done.
Tampa can also offer Stamkos an additional guaranteed year on his deal, which is a legitimate advantage over other suitors, though I’d imagine it’s somewhat offset by the unthinkable amount of additional endorsement money Stamkos could make as a superstar hockey player in Toronto.
All of that said, I have to think it’s a bad sign if McKenzie’s take on the situation is accurate and the two sides haven’t even gotten to the point of hammering out specifics. The Lightning have been a cap team the past two seasons and have been in or near the top half of the league in payroll expenses since Jeff Vinik purchased the team. They’ll have the cash to get a deal done.
I’d think that Stamkos’ deal could be particularly difficult though, particularly if Stamkos’ agent Don Meehan of Newport Sports Management is looking for a deal structurally similar to the one that his other high-profile Newport client Ryan O’Reilly signed this summer. That deal, you’ll recall, has built in lockout and buyout protection and is paid almost entirely in signing bonuses rather than in salary.
The Lightning have resources, but committing to a minimum $9 million payroll expense paid to just one player every July 1 for the next eight years is still a significant decision for any business, particularly one that Forbes estimates to be in the red by annual operating income. Presumably it’s the kind of decision that takes time to weigh.
Luckily for Tampa, time isn’t running out. There’s three months until the trade deadline and seven months until the market opens on July 1. If you were writing a script that ended with Stamkos signing in Toronto though, you’d probably have included ‘McKenzie penning an article about how progress on a potential Stamkos extensions seem nonexistent’ in roughly late November.
It’s still too early to get really excited about this. That said, it’s also not not exciting if you’re a Maple Leafs fan.