So there he was, Steven Stamkos, taking swings in the batting cage in Toronto’s massive retractable domed stadium before a recent Toronto Blue Jays game, and it spawned an interesting thought.
This is a unique form of tampering.
Not really, of course. But Rogers Communications owns the Jays, and it also shares with Bell majority control of the Toronto Maple Leafs, a franchise that has been plotting possible ways to lure Stamkos to town for, oh, three years now.
Tampering? No. But if you’re Rogers, and you want to demonstrate to Stamkos how the world could be his oyster if he were ultimately to skate his way north from Tampa, getting on the field with the Jays was just one more little way to show the man a little love.
“It’s a dream come true for me,” a beaming Stamkos said afterwards, during an appearance on-set with Jamie Campbell and Gregg Zaun.
Stamkos has been right smack dab in the middle of Jays fever this summer, something he didn’t really get to experience as a very young boy in the World Series years of 1992 and ’93.
That same wild excitement from those years has been essentially duplicated this summer, and Stamkos has been a cheering fan caught up in the hometown hoopla.
“It’s been fun to be in the city with how well these guys are playing,” he said.
Now take that and multiply it by, say, a thousand, and you’d have the kind of explosive energy that would be generated if sometime in the future the Leafs were to become a convincing playoff team.
Monstrous. Overwhelming. And Stamkos could be the king of it all.
When you start imagining the possibility of the Lightning sniper deciding to play out his contract in order to become a Leaf next summer, this is the kind of way in which you have to imagine he might be thinking.
Need something more concrete?
How about the Maple Leafs announcing Thursday evening that a statue will be erected in honour of former captain Mats Sundin on Legends Row.
Sundin’s career was ending as a Vancouver Canuck just as Stamkos was starting out in Tampa, but Sundin is about as vivid a reference point as Stamkos could have of all – including hockey immortality – that might be available in Toronto.
And Sundin wasn’t even a local boy. And he didn’t even win. Imagine the star of a team that did.
When Zdeno Chara was asked on Tuesday about why he was excited about next year’s World Cup of Hockey, he cited the chance to play an entire tournament in Toronto.
“Everybody knows this is the centre of the hockey world,” said Chara.
The Leafs may not be a winner or even an appealing team to play for at the moment, but that’s the way in which the hockey industry looks at this city.
This entire line of Stamkos-to-the-Leafs speculation, of course, could be silenced in the stroke of a pen if Stamkos decides to sign an extension with the Lightning.
That could happen today or tomorrow, but it hasn’t happened yet. And it may not for all sorts of reasons.
But at the very least, given all of that which transpired last year with the Mike Babcock saga before he ultimately landed with the Leafs, we should all agree that simply dismissing Toronto as a possible landing spot for Stamkos for all the usual reasons – no Cup since ’67, insistent media pressure, constant recognition in public – wouldn’t be a smart thing to do in the case of Stamkos until he actually decides to do something else.
For starters, this is a franchise that has, since Rogers and Bell joined forces, started to earn a reputation for getting what it wants when it comes to the hockey club it’s trying to turn into a champion.
Tim Leiweke targeted Brendan Shanahan and got him. Shanahan, in turn, targeted Babcock, and got him when nobody – NOBODY – thought he would, and then he persuaded Lou Lamoriello to come to Toronto as well after 28 years in New Jersey.
These aren’t players, of course. But you have to understand that Rogers and Bell and Leiweke and Shanahan have been eying Stamkos and his intersection with unrestricted free agency next summer for years, hoping that something might make him available to the highest bidder in the summer of 2016.
Well, events have, to some extent so far, gone their way. Tampa is a very good team that has to figure out how to pay a host of players to remain a very good team.
Stamkos isn’t even the team’s No. 1 centre at this point – Tyler Johnson is – and the money Stamkos would command over a long-term deal could force the Lightning, like the Chicago Blackhawks, to make some very unappetizing choices with other personnel.
Last winter, with the Leafs locked in a horrible tailspin after the firing of head coach Randy Carlyle, it was hard to imagine anyone would want to be a Leaf. Phil Kessel’s demeanour sure seemed to suggest he didn’t want to be, and the fact he’s changed both his diet and his attitude since being shuttled to Pittsburgh is just one more piece of evidence that, despite his words to the contrary, Toronto was not the place for him.
But since then, the team has hired Babcock and Lamoriello and drafted Mitch Marner. Veterans like Brad Boyes, Devin Setoguchi and Curtis Glencross certainly see possibilities in Toronto as tryout players desperate to keep their careers alive.
Compared to the death march of last winter, there is, in relative terms, a sense of very real optimism in Toronto. Along with Marner, there’s Morgan Rielly and William Nylander, plus other young players.
The team is pushing hard to be a leader, not a follower, in hockey analytics. Mark Hunter is widely viewed as a superb scout, and he’s scouring the world for talent.
So if you’re Stamkos, and you understand all that could be available to you as a Leaf, and you’re not afraid of it all like Kessel seemed to be, this begins to look like an increasingly appealing situation.
The pull of Toronto for Stamkos has to be considerable, and it’s only going to increase the longer he goes without signing a contract.
The Bolts could trade him, sure, but with everyone in the hockey world knowing Toronto will do anything to sign him next summer, it would be most difficult to get maximum value for him.
Again, this could all end tomorrow with the stroke of a pen. But it hasn’t yet. He knows Toronto wants him, and seeing him embrace his hometown this summer had to be disconcerting for Lightning fans hoping he’ll stay with the team.
They’ve already seen Martin St. Louis ask out of Tampa, and understand beloved players may not necessarily see central Florida as the place they want to be forever despite the beaches and the sun.
Several summers ago, we saw Zach Parise decide to go home to Minnesota and play for the Wild at a time when Minny was not a very good hockey team, and soon after the Devils had gone to the Stanley Cup Final.
Some of the same dynamics would apply to Stamkos and Toronto, but on a much greater scale.
Stamkos understands what could be available to him in Toronto. All he has to do is decide he doesn’t want it.
Or that he does.