In three days, we’ll likely see the whole Stamkos Saga (or #StamkosWatch, or whatever you want to call it) come to an end. The window for teams to talk to the one-time 60-goal-scorer got underway just hours after Toronto drafted Auston Matthews this past weekend, and you can bet that by now he has a good idea of what kind of money and situation he’ll be signing on for when free agency opens officially on Friday.
I’m no insider, but I think anyone who’s been paying attention to this story is starting to see a three-way race emerging for this prized free agent, and it looks all too familiar to one we saw just a year ago. It’s probably going to be Buffalo, Detroit, and Toronto, the same teams that went at it for Mike Babcock last spring, dominating the headlines again. But in comparison to the supposed Babcock war, now we’re talking about a lot more money on the table, all of which counts toward the salary cap. The game has changed, and Toronto might be wise to steer clear after a certain point. But can they?
Leafs supporters have been somewhat split in their opinions on Stamkos, but those in favour of bringing him in usually outline that it has to be within the framework of the rebuild. Folks are scared too high a number will hurt Toronto badly in three years when they run into new deals for Marner, Nylander, and Matthews. That sort of logic is sort of flawed, since there are still no guarantees these players turn out to be elite, at least besides Matthews.
What the Leafs have run into is a rare circumstance where an all-world player with much of his prime left has somehow gotten to unrestricted free agency. Depending on who you believe, a return home may be the prime reason for that. This isn’t a free agent class where Stamkos happens to be the top target, for Toronto he has to be the only target.
If the Leafs strike out in their attempts to court Stamkos to Toronto this week, it isn’t like they can look to someone like Lucic, Staal, Vanek or Boedker as some sort of consolation. None of those players would make any sense given where the team is right now rebuild-wise, and wouldn’t make enough of a difference to warrant investing in.
Toronto is in a weird place where Stamkos would clearly kick their rebuild into turbo, but they don’t need him to turn the franchise around. Teams like Detroit or the Rangers, for example, given their downward trend, probably couldn’t say the same. In fact, I bet if you polled much of the Toronto fanbase right now, most would say “I’ll be ecstatic if they get him, and totally fine if they don’t”.
Looking at the Leafs’ depth chart or line combinations for next season, the list of players pushing for the NHL roster at forward probably looks something like this.
If the Leafs are unsuccessful in landing Stamkos, it’s unlikely that list will change much, if at all. They might tinker with a bring-back of Parenteau, or take a look at another cheap UFA (one of those younger options like Pirri or Connolly could make sense), but when it comes to this free agency period, it’s basically Stamkos or nothing, and that seems totally okay. The team rolls on in the right direction, with or without a big shot in the arm.