Things just got 91 times more interesting for July 1.
As Steven Stamkos, long believed to be a target for the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ future No. 1 centre role, inches closer to unrestricted free agency, his hometown now has secured the right to draft a bona fide stud prospect at the most critical forward position.
The NHL-ready Auston Matthews has the potential of becoming a Jamie Benn or a Joe Sakic, his fans say.
So, how does this alter the off-season landscape?
Well, ask yourself two questions:
1. Does Auston Matthews heading to Toronto increase or decrease Stamkos’s desire to sign with the Leafs?
2. Does winning the lottery and the option of securing a cornerstone pivot decrease the Leafs’ appetite to shell out for Stamkos?
NHL forward turned analyst Patrick O’Sullivan knows where he stands on the idea.
“I don’t see how it makes sense for Steven, more importantly, than anyone else,” O’Sullivan told Dean Blundell & Co. on Sportsnet 590 The Fan Monday. “He is looking at going to a place that’s going to have their new No. 1 guy for a decade, hopefully, if things go well.”
Even with Matthews, an enticing crop of youngsters tearing up the American Hockey League, and 2015 first-rounder Mitch Marner averaging more than two points per game in the OHL playoffs, Toronto is likely still three or four years from contending.
Stamkos will be hovering around 30 by then. It’s possible he’d be pushed to second-line centre or the wing in Toronto if Matthews lives up to his hype.
O’Sullivan believes Stamkos is “absolutely” a No. 1 NHL centre, despite the wealth of up-front weapons in Tampa, and a top-10 player in the league — under the right situation. Agreed.
If he yearns to come and dress for his favourite childhood team, Stamkos might now have to accept less money, delay his Stanley Cup dreams a few years, and understand that he could slip on the depth chart in a few seasons.
Remaining in Tampa could offer his best chance at a championship. Signing with, say, Detroit or Montreal should mean assurance that he’s The Man, the No. 1 centre for the foreseeable future.
No doubt Stamkos was a target for the Maple Leafs brass. But is he still?
“For the Leafs, I think it’s counter-intuitive to what they’re trying to do,” O’Sullivan said.
We’re not convinced that’s true. We imagine the Leafs brass admire the intangibles — work ethic, professionalism, leadership, training example — Stamkos could bring to club. And, oh yeah, this is a 60-goal scorer in an era where 60-goal scorers do not hit the open market.
If Toronto wants Stamkos, he’ll be named captain immediately, will have security in the form of a world-class coach, and would have no issue being the role model for Matthews, Marner and William Nylander.
Complicating all of this is the superstar’s health. Insuring a Stamkos contract now that’s he’s dealing with a blood clot presents a financial risk as well as a roster risk.
President Brendan Shanahan said winning Saturday’s lottery won’t affect his team’s free agency plans, but with Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Nazem Kadri (now locked up long-term), and Tyler Bozak (through 2017-18), Toronto is suddenly flush with intriguing young talent up the middle.
There is a popular theory among hockey men, though, that you can never have enough centres, and you can always push one to the wing.
On paper, if Toronto landed the No. 2 or 3 pick and grabbed one of the Finnish wingers, Stamkos-to-Toronto would appear more likely to those who anticipate an eventual logjam at centre.
“I really don’t think it has an impact, whether you pick 1 or 4, what you intend to do in free agency,” Shanahan said. “We’ll know as we get closer to free agency who’s available and who fits into our plan and our vision.”
O’Sullivan notes that, if he wanted to, Stamkos could’ve already re-upped in Tampa for $8 to $9 million for about six years.
“He hasn’t done that, for whatever reason,” O’Sullivan said.
“When you want to go to free agency and you want to max out your money, of course you want to go and be the No. 1 guy somewhere,” argues O’Sullivan, slipping into the player mind-set. “Or, if that’s not the case, you want to go to a team that’s a top-five contender. Not a rebuilding situation, not a situation where there’s any uncertainty.”
And uncertainty is the only certainty with Stamkos’s future right now.