If you’re getting sick of the Steven Stamkos drama already, this might be a long seven months for you. As the clock ticks rapidly on the last year of his final restricted contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning, may are wondering what the future holds for him.
Obviously, one potential destination stands out more than others; the Toronto Maple Leafs. As we’ve seen in the past, a single player won’t make a team into a powerhouse, but Stamkos is the type of talent that can accelerate Toronto’s without actually taking off the rails. Today, we’ll start with how we’ve gotten to now.
It’s February 21st, 2008, and the Toronto Maple Leafs have just been blown out by the Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres were a shell of what they were just a year prior; Daniel Briere and Chris Drury were lost for nothing due to Buffalo’s low budget in the pre-Pegula era. Tomas Vanek was given a grossly inflated contract via an offer sheet the Sabres had to match to keep the fanbase, but this meant that Bryan Campbell was weeks from being traded.
But that didn’t stop them from being better than the Leafs. Of course not; they had a prime Ryan Miller in net while Vesa Toskala turned out to be just as bad as Andrew Raycroft at nearly as high of a cost. Despite the Leafs outshooting their opponents 35-22, the scoreboard read 4-1 and the standings showed the Leafs at 25-28-9.
This left Toronto closer to 30th in the league than it did to the second-last seed in the division. With just twenty games to go in the season, the higher ups knew it was time to shake up the roster. John Ferguson Jr. was already let go, with Cliff Fletcher in the interim chair to take care of gutting the roster. The goal? Get some assets back, and tumble down the standings for a while. After all, the Leafs had gotten some great years out of Mats Sundin, but if they played their cards right, the could land another right handed centre with a nose for the net.
Except, this one would be arguably better, and local.
It didn’t take Steven Stamkos very long to separate himself from the pack and draw the eyes of hockey minds in Toronto. Born and raised in Markham, he made his first waves on the North York Canadiens as a ten-year-old. Smart, unselfish, and aware of where he needed to go, Stamkos was so good that the team took it’s recent centre acquisition and moved him to defence (sounds mean until you find out that the other kid was his long-time teammate PK Subban and that he was going to be paired with Chris Tanev). It was the start of something special, especially once Stamkos began working on his shot, which as a kid was the weakest part of his game.
By the time he turned 15, however, it was his strongest asset, as he proved in his last year of AAA with the Markham Waxers. In 66 games, Stamkos scored an obnoxious 105 goals and 92 assists over the course of his season, scored over two points per game in the OHL Cup, and was named the invitational tournament’s MVP. This earned him the attention of scouts across the league, and as a result, the Sarnia Sting drafted him first overall in the OHL Priority Selection Draft.
Stamkos would still need to work hard to maintain the hype until he was of NHL age, but that turned out to not be an issue. His 92 points in 63 games led the Sting as a rookie, and he topped that with a 58 goal season in his draft year. In both seasons, he represented Team Canada at tournaments; leading the U-18s in assists in 2007, and winning Gold at the World Juniors in 2008.
It was a banner year for Stamkos, overall. He picked up points, won accolades, and earned the spotlight in just about any way he could. Not only was he the best player in the draft, but he was a centre in a draft that greatly favoured defencemen.
The Leafs, historically, have been a team that have built around centres. Our all-time team involved us moving three centres to the wing because we wanted to fit them in, and realistically, we could’ve used fewer natural wingers. Six of the top eight point getters in Leafs history played centre for the team at some point, as did seven of the top ten goal scorers. We almost left George Armstrong off the team, while Phil Kessel coasted in as the team’s second best winger. Bryan McCabe is arguably a top 10 defenceman, and we’re getting to a point where on a performance basis, James Reimer only has durability to blame for him not being in the goaltending discussion.
You might say, “these guys aren’t all time greats”, and you’re right. The point is that this has always been a centre’s market, and the Leafs were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel for arguably their best pivot ever.
It was okay, though. It was time for a fire sale, one that would help the team invest in the future and have a shot at drafting Stamkos. He skated faster than Mats. He shot right handed, like Mats. That shot was heavy and accurate, like Mats. He wasn’t as big as Mats, but he was more electrifying. Best of all, he grew up watching Mats.
Steven Stamkos was the guy to replace Mats. Only one problem, though.
Mats Didn’t Want To Be Replaced
Sundin’s biggest flaw, in hindsight, was that he loved Toronto a little too much. He was always happy to play here, even when times were bad. Even still, he felt the pressure from management, fans, and the media, and indicated that he would consider waiving his no-trade clause. Immediately, the Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings, Calgary Flames, and Vancouver Canucks came calling.
A full-on teardown seemed to be a guarantee after the Buffalo game, but the Leafs had two more matchups before the trade deadline. The worst possible thing happened from there; they won them both, beating the Atlanta Thrashers and Ottawa Senators by a combined score of 8-1, giving the Leafs a run of four wins in five games.
Sundin decided that the team could turn things around. Even if they weren’t successful this year, they would be the year after. He wasn’t going to go. Not only that, he convinced Tomas Kaberle, Bryan McCabe, Pavel Kubina, and Darcy Tucker to stay with them. While McCabe never actually received a suitor at the deadline, the other four members of the “Muskoka 5” all had their departures negotiated and blocked.
Follow the Buffalo game, the Leafs went 9-3-1 in their next thirteen, pushing them out of the bottoming out conversation. The team’s possession numbers and puck luck didn’t shoot up significantly, but rather, these core players all decided to light it up for one last hurrah. Sundin, in particular, scored at nearly a 40 goal pace to close out the year, including a nine-game point streak immediately following Buffalo.
The Leafs weren’t able to push up to the playoffs, especially after losing five of their final six games, but this streak, a playoff pace over the final 19 games, pushed them out of the bottom and twelve points ahead of Tampa Bay, who finished in last place. Toronto ended up seventh from the bottom, and the team ultimately traded up to draft Luke Schenn fifth overall.
Since then, Leafs fans have had a bit of a “what if” mindset to the whole situation. It’s hard to blame them. Admittedly, it would’ve been hard to have out-tanked the Lightning down the stretch, but you have to imagine that Toronto isn’t as successful down that stretch if they swap out Sundin, Kaberle, Kubina, and Tucker for the 2008 versions of Mikhail Grabovski, Chris Higgins, Jeff Carter, Kyle McLaren, and Raffi Torres (the oft-reported respective returns in the nixed trades, along with half a dozen draft picks).
Would it have been enough to make the Leafs finish with 70 points or less; a necessary evil given that 30th won the draft lottery? Maybe not. But the hopeless attempt at solidarity not only lost the Leafs a metric boatload of assets (Sundin walked for free, Kaberle and Kubina’s returns were smaller, Tucker was bought out, and the Leafs traded picks for Grabovski), but it stripped them of their first serious attempt at Stamkos.
Now, the hope begins that it wasn’t also the last attempt. Check back in tomorrow, as we look at Stamkos’ NHL career to date.