The camera focused in on Steven Stamkos on the Lightning bench prior to puck drop. If a Leafs fan squinted hard enough, he could imagine this 50-goal man in the blue and white uniform of his choice.
Like a pro, commentator Paul Romanuk seized the moment. He was talking Leafs, and segued nicely to the place every fan wanted him to go.
“And speculation continues to run rampant that this man could be part of that (Leafs) future,” he pumped, Stamkos’ presence on television screens across Ontario like a steaming rib eye just out of the reach of a starving man. “Steven Stamkos: Unrestricted free agent at the conclusion of the season; a Toronto native; one of the best goal scorers in the world. Stay tuned. Tampa is in Toronto on Deadline Day…”
Not 20 minutes later Stamkos loaded up from his trademark spot inside the left circle and one-timed a puck past a chanceless Jonathan Bernier. As if saying to Maple Leaf fans, “THIS is what Romanuk was talking about!”
In between, Sportsnet showed us the Steven Stamkos Powerade commercial. Then they aired it again.
Hey, we’re all just a kid from somewhere.
Leafs Nation does this every other year, when some Ontario-born superstar nears free agency. They tell campfire tales of how he grew up idolizing the Leafs, and newspapers print pictures of the little tyke in his Maple Leaf jammies.
From a Toronto fan’s perspective, the two points were only a sidebar last night in Tampa. This was another long look at the latest, greatest, Toronto-born soon-to-be-free-agent (hopefully) who will undoubtedly choose the rebuilding Maple Leafs over the other dozen or so teams who will line up for Stamkos on July 1 — if he hasn’t re-signed in Tampa by then.
But we wondered as we watched, if Stamkos was sizing up the Leafs at the same time?
Did he look over at his centre, the promising 23-year-old Vladimir Namestnikov, and then glance down the Leafs lineup of centres looking for anything close? Kadri? Maybe. Bozak? Hmmm. Spaling? Nope. Froese? Yikes…
Did he peruse Namestnikov’s other flank, a 24-year-old winger Ondrej Palat, and wonder: “How good are these two going to be for the next eight years?”
Did he consider Victor Hedman’s presence on that Tampa blue-line for the next decade? Morgan Rielly is good, sure. But does he come with a warm-weather market, and media responsibilities that are like a Smart car compared to Toronto’s Hummer?
Toronto didn’t get its first shot on net until there was 7:35 left in the opening period. But by the second and third period they were getting the better of the chances, with Stamkos really not threatening more than a time or two.
There was a shift halfway through the game where Stamkos’ line, along with Hedman’s pairing, held the puck in Toronto’s zone for the entirety of their shift. They wheeled, circled and passed it around like a group of Triple A Midgets at the community rink on a Saturday afternoon, playing against 12-year-olds.
Of course, Stamkos was too preoccupied to be considering his free agent options at that moment. Had he been sitting in Row 22 however, the very thought of changing teams — from the one with the puck to the one without — would have been an “Are you kidding me?” moment.
“Alright,” Elliotte Friedman asked Stamkos after the game, “you’re aware of the reporting of the Lightning’s contract offer. Just where do things stand, right now, between you and them?”
“They’re the same they’ve been for, you know, since the start of the season,” stammered Stammer. “Obviously the window is open to talk and that’s what we’re doing.”
He didn’t want to talk much about his ongoing contract talks with Tampa. You know, focusing on his game and all that.
“We’ve left that to the outside, and come and played hockey,” he said. “And played some good hockey lately.”
The Lightning head into the All-Star break in fourth place in the East, winner of eight of their past 10, and with goaltending that makes them a real good bet to make a playoff run.
Toronto, meanwhile, is thinking more about the playoff run they’re hoping to make in 2019. With Stamkos, of course.
That much is obvious.