TORONTO — When Steven Stamkos was asked about what every member of Leafs Nation wants to know, he opened up a door wide enough to pilot a Zamboni through.
All it took was four strategically vague words from the captain of the Tampa Bay Lightning on the possibility becoming a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2016:
“We’ll see what happens,” Stamkos said.
Stamkos could’ve said, “Those rumours are ridiculous. Next question.” Or the 24-year-old son of Markham, Ont., with the golden hands and marksman’s aim could’ve spouted on about his loyalty to the franchise that drafted him first overall in 2008, the one that didn’t screw around with a bridge deal and signed him to a five-year, $37.5-million whopper in 2011, as soon as his entry-level paperwork expired.
“It’s always fun playing against Toronto. I’m from here and grew up cheering for the Leafs, so anytime I get a chance to come back here, I enjoy it,” Stamkos said, unflinching. “And anytime I get a chance to play against the Leafs, it’s fun. It’s also fun beating them, too, because a lot of my friends are still Leafs fans. So it’s always great coming back here.”
Stamkos knows the game and plays it perfectly. And we’re not talking hockey, although he’s pretty not bad at that too. (Cough, 60 goals, cough.)
Stamkos’s free agency is still two summers away, yet the speculation that he could pull a LeBron James and be lured to skate for his hometown club is already in full force.
“I don’t think I’m on the same stage as LeBron. There was quite a stir there,” Stamkos said at a promotional ball-hockey event, in which he set up Toronto locals with net-front passes and beat a goalie low-blocker all the way from behind his own goal. High-fives all around.
“We’ll see what happens. It’s a couple years away. Right now I’m focused on what I have to do to win in Tampa. I think we’ve really established ourselves as a team that can compete in upcoming years.”
Perhaps it’s because next summer’s biggest free-agent fish might be Bobby Ryan, 27, unless he re-ups with the cash-conscious Ottawa Senators. Perhaps it’s because Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment CEO Tim Leiweke is the type of swing-for-the fences dealmaker who would do everything in his arsenal to swipe Stamkos out from under Lightning GM Steve Yzerman.
Or, perhaps, it’s because Chicago’s twin signings of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews earlier this month – each inked an eight-year, $84-million deal – have led us to believe Stamkos could eclipse the $100-million mark at the age of 26.
"The business part of the game, it's growing," Stamkos said. "The game's in good shape, and when that happens, the cap's going to grow and players are going to get paid more money. Those guys deserve it: They're great players in this league; they've won championships.
"That's the goal for me is to win a championship. You let your play take care of itself on the ice, and when it's time to re-sign or sign a contract, you back it up with your play."
After Stamkos said the word re-sign, he caught himself and made a point to add “or sign.”
Regardless if his true desire is to return home in 2016, he’s smart enough to know the business part of the game dictates he leave that door ajar, if only to help with leverage when negotiating with Yzerman. (Stamkos’s media availability on this hot July day is due, in part, because he’s cashing a cheque from Coca-Cola.)
“Not to say that I don’t love playing in hockey markets, because I do, but we have a good thing going in Tampa,” Stamkos said. “We have a great owner. We got a great GM in Steve Yzerman. We got a good young team. I want to win, and hopefully I can do it in Tampa.”
Let’s be honest. Even with the Leafs’ hiring of whiz kid assistant GM Kyle Dubas, the Lightning are much closer to emerging as Eastern Conference champs than Toronto.
Tampa Bay has a 27-year-old Vezina-finalist goaltender in Ben Bishop and an emerging Norris threat in 23-year-old defenceman Victor Hedman. Tampa also upgraded its depth in net by signing veteran Evgeni Nabokov to stop the pucks Anders Lindback couldn't, and improved a so-so blueline by acquiring Jason Garrison and Anton Stalman. Yzerman re-signed RFA Calder finalists Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat with ease, and winger Brenden Morrow adds another veteran presence.
But the most important move Yzerman executed since the banged-up Bolts were swept out of the playoffs by Montreal, in Stamkos’s mind, was keeping forward Ryan Callahan in the fold.
“Steve was in a tough position there,” Stamkos said. “If he doesn’t sign him, the Marty St. Louis trade doesn’t look so good anymore. But he was able to re-sign [Callahan], and we know what we’re going to get from him every night. He’s one of the hardest-working guys in the league, but he’s an even better person and teammate.”
If anyone can deal with the pressure of a re-signing as big as Stamkos’s will be, it’s Yzerman — the architect of two gold-medal-winning Olympic teams for Canada, and a man who memorably had to call his club captain, St. Louis, and tell him he didn't make the dream team.
“The important thing is getting a chance to win,” Stamkos said. “It looks like we're going to have that chance for a couple years."
A couple, not three. Well played, Stammer.
On speaking with Rangers forward Martin St. Louis during the Stanley Cup final: “We’re good friends. That’ll never change. He was excited about the opportunity to go to the final. Obviously it didn’t turn out the way he wanted. It was a tough situation. We have to move on. The guys in Tampa have to realize he’s no longer there. We’ve proved we can win without him, and we have to continue doing that.”
On the effect Stamkos's broken leg has had on his outlook: “It tested me mentally pretty good. It was disappointing not being able to play in the Olympics as well. But you go through things like that in your career, and when you come out on top, it makes you stronger as a person and better as a player. You use it as motivation and a learning tool.”
On getting his strength in his leg back: “I had to avoid certain things at the beginning [of my off-season training] to get strength back. I started training a little earlier this summer. I only played 41 games including the playoffs, so half a year. I wanted to get a jump on the summer training. I’m back skating now, so I’m really excited.”
On whether or not the power in his leg is back to 100 percent: “It’s getting pretty similar now to what it’s been before. If not, the closest it’s been since [the injury]. That’s the thing: When you have an injury and you can’t use that muscle, it goes pretty quick. I’ve been working on that pretty hard.”