What the Maple Leafs can learn from Steven Stamkos’ decision to stay in Tampa Bay

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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…

  • 24% body fat

    If you are elite and have not won a cup its not all about money. Toews, Perry, Kane, Kopitar and Getzlaf can sign for what they want because they have won.

    Ovechkin Cap hurts washington.

    Yzerman knew this and stood his ground. Good for him.

  • Harold Ballard

    Recall that on May 16, Babcock said “You dont add big pieces when you are growing”

    Too many hockey bloggers and fans put the cart before the horse. Fortunately for us fans, our management knows exactly what they are doing here even if some don’t want to deal with the reality.

  • Gary Empey

    EDITED—While the cap hit to sign him, really started to bother me after winning the lottery. Before that with the Leafs likely drafting a top winger, signing a 26 year old Stamkos made some sense.

    In a short period of time the Leafs went from having no top two centers to possibly having three. After having an outstanding year playing center with the Marlies, Nylander was to be banished to the wing or third line. This was far to early to give up on a developing 19 year old top six center.

    There is no doubt in my mind Stamkos was looking for something. Whatever it was, was not there anymore.

    I think Drance here is giving Steve Yzerman too much credit. I think Yzerman got lucky today.

    Other than that I think bringing in Canadian Tire CEO Michael B. Medline may have spooked Stamkos.
    Sure us plebs always like to have some Canadian Tire money to give to the wife, but the thoughts of getting paid in it will put most, not all, people off.

  • Canadian Hockey Fan

    The tax issue is total ignorance. Canadians working in the US pay Canadian taxes. Steven Stamkos has always paid Ontario and Canadian tax rates and always will.

    Stop spouting this nonsense about Florida’s tax already!

    • Harte of a Lion

      There is a lot of discussion right now over trucking law changes at the border and if the trucker spends more time in the US then would be paying taxes in the US. I believe Stamkos would have to file there because that is where he spends most of his time.

    • wallcrawler

      His main residence on tax return day is Florida not anywhere in Canada. He pays US taxes not Canadian. I know this since I lived and worked in Florida for 10 years.

  • Gary Empey

    It seems obvious now. The Leafs offered Stamkos less than 8 million. Plus endorsements on Canadian Tire gear to get it up another 4 million.

    Stammer went straight to Tampa and signed.

    There were only two teams he was interested in playing for. Toronto wasn’t really all that interested.