Photo Credit: Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports
Not to rehash the old Space Balls bit into oblivion, but it turns out that your cousin’s milksman’s fellow parishioner’s third husband’s personal trainer – who knows Steve Stamkos and swears that he wants to come play in Toronto – was incorrect.
On Wednesday afternoon, as you’ve probably already heard, Stamkos made the decision to stay in Tampa Bay on an eight-year contract worth $68 million dollars. We still haven’t seen what the structure of that deal looks like, but Craig Custance is reporting that it includes a no-movement clause.
The Stamkos contract seems to be something of a steal for Tampa Bay cost wise. An $8.5 million annual average value for eight unrestricted free agent seasons from the NHL’s premiere marksman is a tidy bit of business for the Lightning. And it seems that Tampa Bay didn’t even need to wield their eight-year cudgel to outbid rival suitors. If you take the total value of Stamkos’ contract and extrapolate it over seven years – the maximum term any other team would’ve been able to hand out – the annual average value still falls short of $10 million. He left money on the table, that seems to be certain.
So how did the Lightning manage to play this so well? And what can the Maple Leafs learn from it?
We won’t know the full inside
baseball hockey part of this story for a few days (maybe months, maybe years), but there are a variety of things we can read into how this unfolded.
Firstly, we should note that this entire process – literally a full season of intense, giddy speculation – unfolded in a relative cone of silence. Aside from terms closely matching Stamkos’ final deal leaking out in late January, neither side spoke too openly or too unguardedly about the negotiations. You can infer from this that there was a fair bit of trust on both sides.
Secondly, Tampa Bay had a variety of natural advantages working in their favour. Even without Stamkos – unequivocally Tampa Bay’s best forward – this was a team poised to contend for a Stanley Cup for the foreseeable future. In each of the past two seasons the Lightning have qualified for the Conference Final and they’ve done so while relying on young players that still have the majority of their prime years ahead of them. The Lightning’s biggest advantage was their status as a young, loaded team on the rise.
Tampa Bay’s relative strength in this area gave Steve Yzerman and company some cache, but that wasn’t the only thing they had working for them. The Lightning also had a significant edge in terms of Florida’s taxation rates, which includes no state-level property taxes and a constitutional provision forbidding state personal income tax. Money made by an earner in Florida just goes further than it does in Ontario (or in New York state, or in Michigan).
And finally, Tampa Bay had the familiarity edge. I’d imagine that Yzerman’s credibility in these negotiations was surely bolstered by the lack of specific chatter that leaked out relating to Stamkos’ situation throughout the past year.
Armed with these advantages, the Lightning never panicked. They were content to let Stamkos speak with other clubs, including a reported meeting with the mayor of Toronto and Maple Leafs brass. The Lightning waited out their best player and, it seems, based on the similarity of the leaked January offer and the deal Stamkos eventually signed, never got into a bidding war or increased their offer. Tampa Bay stuck to their guns.
As Yzerman, his assistant general manager Julien Brisebois and the Lightning front office have demonstrated repeatedly to the likes of Stamkos, Jonathan Drouin, Don Meehan and Alan Walsh over the past five months – they’re masters of brinksmanship.
In counting on the club’s rising fortunes, the tax benefits of Florida and the strength of their relationship with the player to carry the day; Tampa Bay gambled enormously, but didn’t bluff. They seem to have rightly figured that their correlation of advantages might matter more than the money and geography that teams like the Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres and Maple Leafs had working for them.
For the Maple Leafs, losing out on Stamkos is a bit of a body blow in terms of their hopes for next season. There’s no doubt that employing the NHL’s single most efficient shooter would’ve jumpstarted the “Shanaplan”. Over the long-term though, this is still a club with a very bright future.
Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner seem likely to contribute next season and they’ll be cost-controlled to some extent for the next seven years. William Nylander has two years remaining on his entry-level contract and was the most dynamic offensive player in the American League last season at the age of 19. This is a core group that could conceivably congeal into a durable contender.
And eventually, if all goes well, those players will be on the brink of unrestricted free agency. When and if that happens, Maple Leafs fans are left to hope that the club will handle that situation – and manage to achieve the same absurdly favourable result – as Tampa Bay did on Wednesday with Stamkos.
The key for Toronto, it seems, is to stick to the plan and continue to accumulate talent. There’s still a long way to go, but when the time comes, if the Maple Leafs can offer a more credible chance of contending annually for the Stanley Cup than any other potential suitors, they’ll save money.
It’s also about winning enough to begin to rebuild the sort of cultural significance required to leave no doubt in anyone’s minds that the sponsorship dollars will be there for Leafs stars – even above and beyond what a player might save in a Florida-style tax haven.
Ultimately it’s about having the sort of steel spine required to look the best shooter in the NHL in the eye, give him your best offer and stick to it even when he begins to be wined and dined by Toronto mayors and the like.
In terms of the poker-game element, the Shanahan-era Leafs are off to a good start. Even if he fell short on Stamkos, the club’s president has proven himself a master recruiter. Their general manager has seen it all and knows every trick in the book, mostly because he wrote the book. Their chief negotiator has done a masterful job on the club’s best restricted players – just contrast the tenuous situation Winnipeg finds itself in with Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba with the value deals Toronto has Nazem Kadri and Morgan Rielly signed to.
If all goes to plan though and this Maple Leafs organization becomes dynamic and truly formidable down the road, then their biggest tests lie ahead. On Wednesday afternoon the culmination of the crisis-management masterclass put on by the Lightning front office over the past six months was on full display, the fruits of their labour harvested. And from a Maple Leafs perspective, there’s a lot to be learned, if not a superstar left to sign.
As for Leafs fans, well, I heard from my masseuse’s doorman’s dog walker’s substitute teacher’s sandwich artist’s Uber driver that John Tavares would love to come play in Toronto when he hits free agency in 2018…