Toronto Maple Leafs: The Reality in Acquiring Star Players
With the possibility of Steven Stamkos hitting the free agent market, many factors coming into play when it comes to acquiring star talent.
By: David Morassutti
The past week we have heard it all: Stamkos-Gate, Tweet Gate, Stamageddon (my favourite one) along with other clever clichés, all because of a liked tweet. Sure Steven Stamkos has said that liking a tweet about the possibility of the Toronto Maple Leafs pursuing the star sniper in the offseason was an accident, but that has not stopped people from believing that his future next year is not with the Tampa Bay Lightning. However, before Leafs Nation gets their hopes too high on Stamkos possibly coming to play for his hometown team a reality check is necessary, especially when it comes to acquiring a star player.The reality is that NHL teams do not move star players often especially contending teams that want to keep their core players around as long as possible.
The Chicago Blackhawks did this by signing Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews to big contracts after winning three Stanley Cups in five years hoping that they can be contenders for years to come. The Pittsburgh Penguins locked up Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to even longer contract extensions before the new CBA restricted the maximum contract length to eight years. The shorter terms were supposed to protect teams from making terrible decisions with long term deals but it has meant that the shorter the term the more money the player makes. For the longest time Alexander Ovechkin had the highest average cap hit of $9,538,461 before Kane and Toews signed at an average $10.5 million cap hit. One thing that will not change in the NHL is the fact that star players will get paid big money, whether their teams wants to pay them or going elsewhere to get it.
This is the dilemma facing Stamkos and Tampa Bay because the team would want to keep him around and Stamkos likes wants to stay. However GM Steve Yzerman knows that there is a certain number that they can realistically pay Stamkos, and still have enough cap space to get other contract extensions to work as well. There is no telling what Stamkos is asking for in a new deal, but the annual cap hit is probably around $10-$12 million per season. That is a lot of money to pay for one player but because Stamkos is a proven goal scorer and is a pending free agent, he can probably get that on the free agent market.
So where do the Leafs fit in all of this? Well there was a near riot on twitter when Stamkos liked that tweet posted by TSN which lead to it being a hot topic on every Toronto sports radio station and television. It got to the point where there were signs made for Leafs fans that the Air Canada Centre had to confiscate before they got into the building. The obvious problem with all this hype is not only the uncertainty of what Stamkos is going to do but also getting the hopes of Leafs fans so high that they are left disappointed in the end (which is not something new for this fanbase).
This is where Leafs fans need to take a step back and be realistic about what will happen now and going into the offseason. Will the Leafs make an offer for Stamkos if he makes it to free agency? I doubt that Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock will let a player like Stamkos go to another team without at least trying to convince him to come to the new look Leafs franchise. Just having those three in a room with Stamkos should give the Leafs a favourable advantage, but the reality is that there are a couple of factors that do not make the Leafs a slam dunk destination for the elite sniper and other top end players.
One is the fact that the Leafs are in a rebuilding situation with a lot of young players like William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Garret Sparks, Connor Brown, Travis Dermott, and many other prospects on their way to making the NHL. A player like Stamkos who is turning 26 years old next year wants to play on a contending team and has spent time on a rebuilding Tampa Bay team. Does he want to go through that all over again with the Leafs? That is something that the current Leafs regime would have to try and convince him as a good option. There is no doubt that if the Leafs did sign Stamkos it could be one of the largest contracts annually per season, something that the Leafs are capable of offering. However does Stamkos want to deal with the constant media attention and be on a team that has not won a Stanley Cup since 1967? Things are looking up for the Leafs with Lamoriello and Babcock in charge but it is not like the Leafs are one piece away towards their ultimate goal and that is the reality that Leafs fans have to remember.
James Mirtle from the Globe and Mail looked at the Leafs cap situation going into next season, with the players signed going into next season and the combined $2.5 million cap hit for Phil Kessel’s retained salary and Tim Gleason’s buyout the Leafs, they have around $36 million to spend on 13 to 14 players. That is without a new contract for stud defenceman Morgan Rielly who is due a pay raise. Then there has to be a decision made on Nazem Kadri, James Reimer, Peter Holland and some other RFAs deals needed to be sorted out. Even if players from the Toronto Marlies step in and play pivotal roles with the Leafs there are still important positions that may need to be filled via free agency or trades.
Realistically the Leafs will need to add a top-six defenceman, two more forwards that can play a top-six role if need be and depending on what happens with Reimer and Jonathan Bernier, a goalie. One way that a Stamkos deal could work for the Leafs is if the team is able to move a player like Tyler Bozak, Jake Gardiner or Joffrey Lupul who have higher cap hits. Lupul would be the hardest contract to move with two years left at $5.25 million and his injury history. Bozak has two more years left at $4.2 million and could draw some interest if he can continue to play like he has this season. Gardiner has played better under Babcock but he still has his miscues on defence. If the Leafs do sign Stamkos and are unable to move Bozak, then Kadri would be the odd man out given where his contract demands will be at the end of the season.
There are not many high quality free agents available unless Stamkos, Anze Kopitar, and Eric Staal all hit the open market, which means that there will be a high number of teams interested in a player like Stamkos driving his price high. That happened when Zach Parise and Ryan Suter hit the open market and the Minnesota Wild signed them to $98 million deals over 13 years. Stamkos will get a hefty pay raise if he hits free agency and the Leafs need to remember that they cannot focus their attention on one player and ignore the implications that a monster contract can have on their cap if they intend on being competitive and want to bring in more valuable free agents.
The Toronto Blue Jays are a perfect example of what can happen when a fanbase gets their hopes up about acquiring a star free agent. Many believed that David Price would be a top priority for the team to bring back for next season,ultimately they did not want to pay the high price tag that the Boston Red Sox did because they were thinking about the implications that it would have on their roster moving forward. Sometimes teams have to make the unpopular choices in the eyes of their fans in order to realize the ultimate goal.
The Leafs carelessness in free agency in the past cost them for a long time and now Leafs fans have to be patient and understand management’s plan which may not include a push for Stamkos or other star players via trades or free agency. So whether or not the Leafs sign Stamkos or other free agent players is not as cut or dry as the media or other people think. That is the reality that teams face when it comes to acquiring star players a reality that sometimes is not easily understood.