Maple Leafs fans should be relieved they dodged Stamkos bullet

Nick Kypreos is surprised given the numbers he could command and stature he'd be given in other markets that he'd return to Tampa Bay, indicated that the Lightning captain had no real intentions of leaving.

After 50 years the Toronto Maple Leafs can afford to wait a little bit longer.

Admittedly, the idea of Brendan Shanahan filling a 10,000 square foot condominium at The Four Seasons with Canadian Tire money, fitting Steve Stamkos with a snorkel, throwing open the door and inviting him to swim in it was pretty beguiling.

Admittedly, the idea of adding the NHL’s most lethal non-Russian goal scorer at age 26, who happened to be a hometown kid, happened to be a Blue Jays fan and happened to be a free agent in his prime was enough to get the head-spinning and the stomach going all bumpy.

And it’s hard to argue that moving the Shanaplan up by a couple of years or so was pretty damn tempting.

But know this: Even as Stamkos was tweeting about how excited he was to be returning to the Tampa Bay Lightning for eight more years, ending two years of him tweeting and deleting at the Leafs fan base, like the pretty girl in Grade 8 winking at the nerdy kid, the Leafs have dodged a bullet.

We’ll never know exactly what Stamkos was offered by the Leafs, who – according to Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun – met with the Leafs ownership, Toronto mayor John Tory and Canadian Tire chief executive Michael Medline on Monday.

But presuming it was something north of the $8.5-million annually the Lightning are paying him – and it would likely have to be significantly north of that given the difference in the local taxes he would have to pay and the extra year Tampa could offer – the Leafs would have regretted the deal.

Timing is everything and the Leafs have spent the past 18 months getting younger, building their prospect pool and – in a massive stroke of luck – winning the draft lottery and landing 18-year-old Auston Matthews.

The work isn’t done. Presuming recently acquired Freddie Anderson is a No.1 goalie, if the Leafs are going to break their 50-year Cup drought before the Mike Babcock era is over they’ll need to find a defenceman who can do for their back end what they’re depending on Matthews to do as the No.1 centre-in-waiting: solidify their top three forward lines by ensuring the first line run by a player capable of driving play against top-pairing defencemen.

After that everything else is easier to have fall in place, and given the talent the Leafs have trying force their way into the lineup – the Mitch Marners, the William Nylanders, the Connor Browns — that won’t be a problem.

That defenceman might be Morgan Rielly – at age 22 he’s got all the talent and lots of time to evolve into that player – but if he’s not ultimately the straw the stirs the drink the Leafs will need one who can fill the role that teams that seems compete for Stanley Cups all seem to have.

And if the solution to that problem can’t be solved internally that might be the time for the Leafs to go into the marketplace – free agent or trade – and take on the kind of money that a top-pairing D-man commands. Spending $10-million-a-year (to pick a number) on Stamkos to join a last-place team seems putting the superstar before the horses.

Success in the NHL inevitably breeds contract problems. The Chicago Blackhawks have made a cottage industry of selling off key contributors to their quasi-dynasty over the years. The Boston Bruins had to shed talent and money at their peak, hastening their decline. For a long-time it looked like the top-heavy nature of the Pittsburgh Penguins would preclude them from winning another Cup, although they clearly defied those odds.

Adding Stamkos to the Leafs now would seem to accelerate those problem without the benefit of having won. Will Anze Kopitar cramp the Los Angeles Kings cap situation for years to come? Absolutely, but whenever problems arise, Kings general manager Dean Lombardi can look fondly on his two Stanley Cup rings and call it the price of doing business.

Presuming the Leafs young stable of talent reaches their potential, signing Stamkos would have meant trying to fit in the contract needs of an emerging Matthews or a rising Marner or whoever around the $10-million iceberg floating in the middle of their cap situation from now until Stamkos turns 34.

And did we mention that his points per-game totals have fallen for three straight seasons?

The Leafs have a lot to look forward to and – should their prospect pool mature at a reasonable pace – they could be in for the most enjoyable ride in sports over the next few years: the slow and steady rise of a young team made-up of home-grown talent.

There will be a time to lift the enterprise with the right free agent signing or key trade; the moment to squeeze out every penny of cap space to help a roster of young players make the jump to true Stanley Cup contender.

As exciting as the idea of Steve Stamkos was, that time wasn’t now.

John Tavares is a free agent in the summer of 2018, however. We’ll check back then.

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