Photo Credit: Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY SPORTS
It’s come to this, hasn’t it? What a weekend for Toronto Maple Leafs fans. As team president Brendan Shanahan put it succinctly and bluntly on CBC — “we needed a win”. Truer words haven’t been spoken in a long time from a Leafs executive. From those who carry undeserved arrogance to unedited bluster to just being in over their heads, it’s a rare acknowledgement from a Maple Leafs executive in the post-Pat Quinn run of things and the eleven years out of twelve it’s been where the playoffs are a television show for the franchise and not a participation sport.
Well, that win came in the form of finally holding a lottery ticket and having it go somewhere and be something, and regardless of how the career of Auston Matthews turns out, it’s the start of a feeling that hasn’t been there for quite some time. Drafting Wendel Clark thirty-one seasons ago was wonderful, but it didn’t transcend the franchise. Trading Clark after eight oft-injured seasons netted them Mats Sundin, but even on a team with Sundin and Doug Gilmour (and eventually again, Wendel Clark!), Sundin wasn’t able to lead the Maple Leafs to their first playoff series win until his fifth season in the blue and white.
We know the misery of the past Draft Lottery results and then, often, the Draft itself. It’s why Andrew Raycroft and Tom Kurvers are names that make Leaf fans shudder. The late-season runs which netted the Leafs a Luke Schenn instead of a Drew Doughty, or a Nazem Kadri instead of a Matt Duchene, they seemed endless, orchestrated, and worse yet, inevitable.
In 1998, San Jose finished nine points ahead of the Leafs and hopped them to win the Lottery (the Lightning, the NHL’s worst team that season, held an option to swap picks with San Jose thanks to a previous trade and ended up with Vincent Lecavalier). He could have been a Leaf. Six years later, the Lightning were Cup champs.
In 2007, the Leafs could have drafted a player like Kevin Shattenkirk or Max Pacioretty with the 13th overall pick — instead, it was packaged for Vesa Toskala and Mark Bell.
In 2008, the Leafs moved from 7th to 5th (giving up a 2nd-rounder and 3rd rounder to the New York Islanders) just to draft Luke Schenn. Tyler Myers, Erik Karlsson, John Carlson, and future Leaf Jake Gardiner were all soon to be drafted in the first round after.
In 2010, the Leafs were forced in horror, following the Phil Kessel deal in September 2009, to watch the Boston Bruins use the Leafs’ pick at 2nd overall to select Tyler Seguin, immediately after Taylor Hall. Brian Burke had ONE JOB that season — make sure that pick in the Kessel deal wouldn’t embarrass the franchise. It didn’t go so well.
Less awful to watch, but lousy nonetheless was seeing the Boston Bruins, fresh from a Stanley Cup triumph, use the #9 pick the Leafs were forced to trade to grab blueliner Dougie Hamilton to add to their roster.
So, yes, Brendan Shanahan is as right as right can be — the franchise needed a win. The excellent pieces added since Morgan Rielly’s 5th-overall selection in 2011, like William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Nikita Soshnikov, and others, needed a transcendent franchise player to be surrounding them — and the hope is that player is Arizona-raised Auston Matthews.
So, there are some obvious questions given Toronto isn’t going to entertain offers to trade the pick, and even if they did, NHL general managers never seem to find a way to go all-in to move up in the salary cap era. There aren’t Ricky Williams-to-the-Saints or Robert Griffin-to-the-Washington NFL team moves that get made. There usually aren’t offer sheets that make you gasp, even like past ones as in Carolina’s to Sergei Fedorov, or the Rangers’ towards Joe Sakic.
Are the Maple Leafs likely to be a significant enough improvement to be a playoff team next season? Is a long-term UFA signing of Steven Stamkos necessary to do just that, and to establish a core that can contend for a Stanley Cup by, say, 2022 or so?
I’ve had to do the sports talk radio debate about whether players indeed want to play in Toronto or not in the NHL. It’s been far more established in the other sports, you know, where the percentage of the league’s players aren’t between 49-53 percent Canadian-born and raised, that Toronto hasn’t been a destination point for “elite-level” free agents. Roger Clemens in 1997 certainly stands out as a Blue Jay signee, but I’m not sure an A-lister in the NBA has ever chosen Toronto. That may change. Basketball has never been bigger in the city, and the team is only now after 20+ years stringing together consistent winning seasons with the same core players and head coach.
I’ve always maintained the Maple Leafs aren’t the drawing card some think they are, but it isn’t a black hole meant to be avoided by prospective UFAs either. Curtis Joseph, at age 31, by far the best goalie on the market in summer 1998, chose to be in Toronto and within months, the Leafs were in the Eastern Conference Finals against Buffalo. Older free agents like Gary Roberts and Shayne Corson were eager to sign on. When the Leafs lost Joseph in summer 2002 to Detroit, they grabbed the remaining years of Ed Belfour later in the day. You can point out that Belfour was headed towards the twilight of his career, but the older goalies (Roy, Belfour, Richter, Joseph) were the known commodities then and in quite-high demand.
I think I regard a bit less the free agent flurry of players like Michael Peca, Jeff O’Neill, Jason Allison, and Eric Lindros coming to Toronto after the 2004-05 season was lost. Those players were clearly playing out the string (not to question their efforts, but their careers had seen better days).
But Steven Stamkos is in a unique situation, and that’s been well-documented. Players like him do go to free agency, but not at age 26. Marian Hossa was 28 when he signed the one-year deal with Detroit in summer of 2008. Ilya Kovalchuk is comparable given he was 27 in summer 2010 when he went back to New Jersey. But Brad Richards was 31 when he signed his mega-deal with the Rangers in 2011. Zdeno Chara was 30 when he left Ottawa for the big money and term of Boston. The league hasn’t had a marquee player as young as Stamkos, with as many productive years left, hit the open market.
So — let’s bottom line this, if he wants to be in Toronto, does the team want him just as badly?
I am a subscriber that the first part is accurate. That given similar money and term in Toronto as opposed to elsewhere, Stamkos is interested. I’ve heard this from too many sources — most of whom would know, a few of whom aren’t wrong with their “educated guesses” very often, that Stamkos likes what he sees here. He’d have listened politely to Toronto even before the arrivals of Brendan Shanahan and Mike Babcock, even before the possibility existed of young talent like Marner and Nylander could co-exist with him offensively. And now, a possible transcendent player in Matthews. Stamkos is going to be interested. You may have heard the same about John Tavares, but I’m told Tavares is a lot more likely to extend in New York. He’s more quiet and withdrawn. You’re less likely to annoy or irritate Stamkos with large daily media gatherings and “captain” responsbilities and radio talk show requests and autograph signings and public appearances than you are with Tavares.
Toronto checks off numerous boxes for Stamkos, and the uniqueness of his youth, his eagerness to embrace the market, and the fact that coming to the Leafs at an ideal time for growth, it all works out. Stamkos and Don Meehan from Newport Sports should be seeking from a spend-to-the-cap team like Toronto a seven-year deal in the neighbourhood of a $9M AAV — totaling $63M. That’s not to say Stamkos can get the Leafs to capitulate to that, but to me, it’s certainly a starting point.
Are the Leafs less into Stamkos than he is them because of the fact they’re finally adding a young #1 star centre and getting to develop him from age 18 for the first time, in essence since Darryl Sittler’s youthful early 1970s? No, honestly, do you have other names? Sundin arrived as a Leaf at age 23, Gilmour at 28. I suppose Vincent Damphousse comes to mind, an excellent selection in 1986 at 6th overall, but let’s face it, there’s far more surrounding Matthews and 1986 was quite a lousy draft class, and this one thirty years later certainly isn’t lining up that way.
Is it ridiculous to suggest that as Matthews is peaking into stardom in three seasons from now, that Stamkos is approaching 30 and starting a decline, and maybe a steep one? You may suggest that’s skeptical thinking, but it just isn’t an NHL, no matter how brilliant your linemates are or how good your team is, where most players start scoring more goals in their early-to-mid 30’s than they were in their mid-20s.
Though injuries have played a part, Stamkos has gone from a 1.15 points-per-game average in his 2nd-4th seasons (ending in spring 2012) to a 0.95 PPG over his past four seasons. Are you betting the 0.95 goes up over the next three seasons? OK, that’s got some possibility of succeeding for you, I might concede that, if ever so slightly. How about the following four seasons beginning in 2020-21? I would wager myself you don’t want to make that bet. So there’s a risk/reward for the Maple Leafs, but you know what, these are great dilemmas to have when you’re attempting to make a laughingstock of a franchise a Stanley Cup competitor, or at the very least, the consistent playoff force they were between 1999-2004.
Can the Maple Leafs afford Stamkos? Well, sure they can, but creativity may still need to be the order of the day. Is someone else besides Nathan Horton and Stephane Robidas on LTIR all or most of next season? Are the Leafs going cheap with either a competitor to or a backup for Jonathan Bernier in goal? Are there reasonable RFA deals in the works for Peter Holland and/or Martin Marincin? Can any vets be flipped given you are adding potentially four quite-skilled forwards into your Top Nine (Matthews, Nylander, Marner, Soshnikov) all on entry-level contracts, and we assume, to be joined by van Riemsdyk, Kadri, Bozak, and Komarov, for starters. Are the three acquired veterans heading into the last season of their deals (Michalek, Laich, Greening) all back as Leafs or can they be flipped as assets. It’s quite likely those players are more deadline moves once again.
A number of different directions are available, but the Maple Leafs brass has to consider the cap implications of all of them to make Steven Stamkos fit. Would I sign Stamkos? Yes, i still would. He’s a known commodity, and the Leafs will be going forward with a lot of youth, and yet, not all the youth they’ll go with will work out ideally and/or as exceptionally as optimists like to think. It doesn’t usually for any team, let alone the Maple Leafs, who’ve had the remarkable link of incompetence AND terrible circumstance and luck over the last decade of player transactions of all kind.
Stamkos also alleviates the immediate pressure on Auston Matthews to begin delivering, and fast, and without him, there only are those couple of proven scorers in JVR and Kadri, and I suppose, we could argue Michalek if he’s healthy and able to play between 2nd/3rd line and garner some PP2 minutes. He is only 31, and injuries far more than inconsistent play when healthy has been his undoing statistically these last couple seasons — I think he can be a 20-20 guy with the right sheltering of minutes and talented linemates.
So if your centres are Stamkos/Matthews/Kadri/and some variation of Holland/Bozak as your 4th line C, and you’re playing Nylander on the wing as a 20-year old (some people hate this idea, now that Matthews is here, I don’t necessarily), you’ve got strength down the middle that was non-existent before.
Matthews may be a better NHL player than Stamkos in as little as two seasons, or as many as four — but that would be the projection for him. Even with both, there’s little guarantee of a playoff spot, despite how fearful other Eastern Conference teams should be of the Leafs for years to come. They will still need to find a dominant, full-season goaltender that they haven’t had since the Belfour of 03/04, and the Leafs still need considerable assistance on the blueline for Rielly and Gardiner before the playoffs can be even discussed.
But make no mistake — and few are — the eventual acquistion of Auston Matthews is a major win for the franchise, and bringing 26-year old Steven Stamkos here this summer, may actually keep expectations for Matthews in check, while raising those of the actual team — and after eleven years of misery and counting, maybe that needs to be embraced more than fears of how the Leafs’ cap situation will look in 2022.