Quick Shifts: Where will Lightning’s ruthless approach take Steven Stamkos?

Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) celebrates his goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs during the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, April 21, 2022, in Tampa, Fla. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. I only got 11 hours of sleep, so maybe that’s affecting the quality of this blog.

1. What makes the Steven Stamkos drama in Tampa Bay so juicy, so compelling, is its rarity and ruthlessness — particularly in hockey.

Consider all the Stanley Cup champions of this salary-cap era, particularly the repeat ones. 

Even as their ages curved away from prime, the superstars and faces of those franchises, almost to a man, were taken care of financially.

The Chicago Blackhawks not only handsomely rewarded serial winners Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, but they went deep on a player like Brent Seabrook with a thank-you contract, even when the most casual observer raised an eyebrow or plugged a nose.

It was one thing for the Pittsburgh Penguins to extend Sidney Crosby through age 37; it was quite another to ink Evgeni Malkin to age 39 and take Kris Letang to age 41.

Most legends don’t like to change clothes and go.

The Washington Capitals never seriously considered severing ties with Alexander Ovechkin or Nicklas Backstrom after that forever duo delivered the organization’s first banner, despite the competitive risk of doubling down on supreme talents on the back halves of their career.

No wonder Stamkos was insulted (my word) or “disappointed” (his) that general manager Julien BriseBois didn’t so much as entertain an extension for all-time franchise leader in goals, points, and power-play goals over the summer. 

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Despite Stamkos’s desire to retire a Lightning and wrap up this bit of business prior to training camp.

Despite Stamkos, 33, coming off two healthy, resurgent campaigns and racking up more points (84) than every impending UFA not named William Nylander.

From the captain’s chair, this is understandably a slap in the face from a front office he has routinely praised and defended. (Hey, remember, when I took a “hometown” discount last time around? And how my taking less money set the tone for Victor Hedman and Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy and Brayden Point to take a little less too? And how I didn’t cause a stink about shifting to the wing? And how we lifted two freaking Cups?)

From the executive’s chair, BriseBois’s wait-to-reward approach is mildly reminiscent of Doug Armstrong’s reluctance to hand pending UFA Alex Pietrangelo the bag after the stud D-man captained the Blues to the 2019 Cup. But at least those sides tried negotiating.

According to BriseBois, he’s willing to wait this out until the off-season — and the Bolts have already committed more than $75 million to 2024-25’s salary cap.

“It’s tough times in terms of the cap situation that we’re in. Obviously disappointing to only see the cap go up a million dollars,” Stamkos said when we saw him at the NHL Awards. “Good teams have good players, and when you go on runs, guys really make a name for themselves and deserve the money that they’re gonna get. 

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“So, it’s tough when you have the cap situation like we have in Tampa. There’s not a lot to go around. You’ve seen we’ve lost some really good players. The management does a great job of trying to fill the holes that are left, but you never want to lose guys like we’ve lost in the past with [Ryan] McDonagh, [Ondrej] Palat and [Barclay] Goodrow, [Blake] Coleman, [Yanni] Gourde… the list goes on of amazing players. It’s tough. It’s unfortunately part of the cap world that we live in.”

And it’s why original Golden Knight Reilly Smith was ushered out of Vegas before his Cup party hangover cleared.

But could it really be why Tampa and Stamkos (who holds a full no-move clause) part ways?

Is BriseBois truly this cutthroat? Do you kind of wish your favourite team’s GM played hardball like this, too?

And will Stamkos’s frustration off the ice affect his play, for good or bad, on it?

Moreover, it begs a question of sports fans: If your hero has already delivered, would you rather him move on for the sake of sustained competitiveness? Or do you value the storybook romance of loyalty and respect?

Stamkos calmly but purposefully dropped the biggest bombshell of training camp.

Get your popcorn ready. This story is just revving up.

2. We won’t beat this dead horse any longer, promise. But I did find Tuesday’s Spittin’ Chicklets episode good listening for anyone curious to see how Mike Babcock’s forced resignation played out for news-breaker Paul Bissonnette.

According to Bissonnette, Babcock’s phone-browsing habit stretches back to the coach’s Maple Leafs tenure. 

“There was a designated guy in Toronto that would give all the new guys a heads-up because he knew that this was going to happen to them and then later apologized to the [Columbus] player who reached out to me because he’d forgotten to mention that this is actually what goes down.” 

Interesting nugget.

It’s clear that NHLers have been reluctant to report inappropriate conduct either directly to the Players’ Association or via the NHL whistleblower hotline if they’re relying on word of mouth or a player-turned-podcaster to speak their truth.

Also clear: Neither the Blue Jackets nor Leafs want to bury Babcock any further. Suffice it to say, it would be difficult to find a vocal Babcock supporter around the Toronto organization this week.

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John Tavares kept his commentary brief: “Overall, the whole situation is unfortunate.”

Mitch Marner was asked directly Wednesday if Babcock ever scrolled through his phone or requested personal pics.

“I don’t really want to comment on that too much. Whatever happened, happened,” Marner replied. “He’s not with our team anymore. My focus isn’t on any other team or any other person. My focus is on the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey club and who we have around us as human beings.”

Let’s keep it moving.

3. Brad Marchard, captain.

“I’m gonna run through a wall for that guy,” Jeremy Swayman endorsed. “Same as everyone around me.”

Yes, the torch has been passed in Boston, the maturation complete.

Even though the all-star winger was the natural successor to Patrice Bergeron, carrying 2011’s glory into 2024, Marchard sounded genuinely humbled by the honour when meeting with local reporters.

“It was surreal. Almost felt weird to see the jersey… The guys you see wearing the ‘C’ are the best to ever play the game. And to look down at it and for it to be mine and to put it on —it was a different feeling,” Marchand said.

Your goal as a kid coming up in the sport, Marchand explained, is to get drafted, then to stick on a team. Lifting the Cup? Winning a gold medal? Wearing a letter?

“Those are almost the unattainable things,” said Marchand. To be captain is to become “the 0.1 per cent of the 0.1 per cent.”

What would a 23-year-old Marchand say if he knew he’d be the Bruins captain one day? 

“I don’t think Thorty and Soup would ever let me think that was gonna happen,” Marchand smiled, winking to the Merlot Line. “They would have beat that out of me pretty quick.”

4. The pressure of missing Day One of training camp and a lack of player leverage helped spur last-hour, team-friendly deals for Minnesota’s Calen Addison, Ottawa’s Egor Sokolov, and Arizona’s Jan Jenik.

Still, four restricted free agents remain without contract with camps underway. 

Columbus depth defenceman Tim Berni is participating in camp sans contract, a positive sign, but he has competition in the form of Nicolas Meloche, arriving on a tryout.

Shane Pinto, Ottawa’s 20-goal man, is nearing a deal with the Senators; those brief Philadelphia trade rumours have been whisked away. GM Pierre Dorion told reporters he is speaking with Pinto’s agent, Lewis Gross, “almost on a daily basis.” That centre Josh Norris began camp in a yellow sweater (indicating injury) should remind the club of the value of centre depth.

Less optimistic are the double bridges in need of crossing in Anaheim.

The Ducks probably need their marketable face and leading scorer, Trevor Zegras, around. And we can’t imagine it’s wise for a 21-year-old defenceman Jamie Drysdale to miss camp after playing all of eight games in 2022-23.

GM Pat Verbeek is drawing a hard line here, as he did with RFA Troy Terry, whose seven-year deal wasn’t negotiated until the morning of arbitration. Verbeek has the stomach to wait, despite fan frustration, but unlike Dorion, he can’t point to lack of cap space as an excuse. 

Do his players? Will these stalemates plant the seeds of hard feelings?

(Remember: RFA Rasmus Sandin missed the start of Leafs camp last September. He eventually caved and signed… only to be traded by the deadline.)

Regarding Zegras, who is reportedly trying to figure out the dollars on a three-year bridge, agent Pat Brisson told The Athletic: “It’s not moving much, but we are talking.”

What a way for 2022-23’s worst NHL team to kick things off — with a first-time head coach, Greg Cronin, trying to rally a rebuilding squad, to boot.

5. The over/under for Connor Bedard’s 2023-24 goal total was originally set at 32.5.

Crush the over.

Only nine 18-year-olds in NHL history have reached the 30-goal mark and only seven have produced 65 or more points.

Chicago has a special one, though.

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Another rare group Bedard should join this season: Only 12 No. 1–overall picks have gone on to immediately lead their team in scoring right after getting drafted. The most recent to do so? Auston Matthews (69 points for the Leafs in 2016-17) and John Tavares (54 points for the Islanders in 2009-10).

The Blackhawks’ top three point-getters last season were Max Domi (49), Patrick Kane (45) and Andreas Athanasiou (40) — none of whom are still with the club.

Stamkos met Bedard in the off-season training with Connor McDavid, a gaggle of No. 1 overalls getting pushed by Gary Roberts outside Toronto. Stamkos describes the phenom as a down-to-earth kid who comes from a great family and has the mindset to succeed.

“There’s a lot of pressure that comes with being a first-overall pick, especially one as highly touted as him. I’m not sure I was in the same category as that coming up,” Stamkos says. “The skill speaks for itself. We’ve all seen the videos of him shooting pucks and in the gym — the work ethic is there as well. And I’m excited to see what he can do.” 

Stamkos then thinks back to his rookie year and how he “only” sniped 23 goals and recorded 46 points, how he didn’t truly arrive as a star until his 51-goal, 95-point sophomore season.

“It doesn’t need to necessarily happen right away,” Stamkos cautions. “He’s going into a little bit of a different situation in Chicago, where they’ve kind of embraced the rebuild and have some really good young pieces in play — and, obviously, one of the best hockey markets in the world. 

“It was maybe a little easier for me to go to Tampa and not have as much pressure. But listen, it’s the best league in the world, and now you’re competing against guys who are bigger and stronger and more experienced.” 

Any advice for Bedard, No. 1 to No. 1?

“I don’t think he’s gonna have any problem adjusting. But if he does, it’s just enjoy the moment. It goes by fast. I just finished my 15th season, and it’s crazy to think that I remember draft day in 2008 like it was yesterday. So, just enjoy it.”

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6. Much chatter in Toronto over William Nylander’s starting camp at centre ice, between Max Domi and Calle Järnkrok. Listening to him discuss the move, he doesn’t sound 100 per cent sold that this will become his permanent role.

The man can skate, read plays and stick-check, no question.

Anecdotally, Nylander the winger has been using his jump to blow the zone for quick strikes. To these eyes, it seemed he was getting himself a breakaway more games than not last season.

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That’ll be a tall order: making sure he takes care of the D-zone first before thinking about the counterstrike.

“Maybe I get the puck a little bit more in the middle of the ice,” Nylander the centre figures. “But playing on the wing, maybe I get more breakaways and stuff like that, so it’s a little give and take.”

7. Like every free agent who inks a one-year contract, Tyler Bertuzzi is eligible to re-sign with the Maple Leafs as early as Jan. 1.

Considering the left wing is getting the first shot to skate alongside Toronto’s two most productive skaters, Marner and Auston Matthews, a career year is not out of the question.

Has he contemplated the idea of re-upping quickly if the first few months go well? If the ATM Line cashes in as frequently as it should?

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“I haven’t even played my first game yet,” Bertuzzi smiled. “But it’s been awesome so far, so time will tell with that.”

As for taking pucks from Marner — hot off a career-best 69-assist campaign — Bertuzzi told reporters: “I’m going to have to glue my stick to the ice. It could come at any time, anywhere. It’s cool.”

8. Rare is the Russian NHLer willing to openly speak out against the invasion of Ukraine.

Bravo, Nikita Zadorov, for doing so on the first day of training camp, first to YouTube journalist Yuri Dud, then again to The Hockey News.

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“I understand the consequences from my motherland, word’s going to come out and how they’re going to react over there, but I think it’s really important for people to know my point of view on that. And I think it’s important for young guys, Russian players, to know it’s OK to speak out,” Zadorov said.

“I just have a hope — maybe it’s a child hope — but I hope my words can change something in this world. I think it’s important to speak out out.”

The word courage gets overused in sports, but Zadorov has it in spades.

9. Playoff predictions!

Atlantic: Maple Leafs, Bruins, Lightning, Sabres

Metropolitan: Hurricanes, Devils, Rangers, Penguins

Central: Avalanche, Stars, Jets, Blues

Pacific: Oilers, Golden Knights, Kings, Flames

10. Enjoyed my chat this week with Alex Adams on his Behind the Play podcast. Lots of season preview topics here….

11. Throwback goalie masks are all the rage in Toronto.

Ilya Samsonov instructed veteran designer David Gunnarsson to whip up some “old school” graphics for his second year as a Leaf, and Gunnarsson leaned into a Curtis Joseph–meets–Vesa Toskala motif.

Samsonov and CuJo got a chance to speak at Monday’s team golf tournament.

“He said, ‘This is unbelievable mask,'” an excited Samsonov told reporters. “Respect for him. He’s an unbelievable goalie. He’s huge for Toronto.” 

Not to be outdone, Martin Jones’s mask designer, Steve Nash, came up with the idea of pulling from 10(!) historic Leafs netminders’ masks: Joseph, Ed Belfour, Felix Potvin, Doug Favell, Mike Palmateer, Wayne Thomas, Michel “Bunny” Laroque, Terry Sawchuk, Jacques Plantes, and Johnny Bower.

“Turned out pretty good,” Jones said.

12. Rightly, the Tanner Pearson–Casey DeSmith trade is being painted as a win-win for the Canucks and Canadiens (and for the players involved).

Pearson gets a fresh start (and likely more ice time) after last winter’s medical debacle. Vancouver avoids losing the forward for nothing on waivers. DeSmith slithers out of a crowded crease and gets a legit shot to be a No. 2. And Montreal picks up a third-round pick and what should be a motivated player coming east off injury (think: Sean Monahan).

But we’ll call this deal a win-win-win.

With the Canucks shoring its goaltending depth via the trade, that means opposing GMs trying to sneak a goaltender through waivers before opening night have a better chance to do so. (We’re looking at you, Brad Treliving and Martin Jones.)

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