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Not Signing Steven Stamkos Will Benefit the Leafs

By: Aaron Greenfield

After discussion of nearly two years, the excitement and drama died down in an instant. Steven Stamkos announced he would be returning to Tampa Bay for eight years. As tempting as it was for Toronto to sign him, the Maple Leafs will benefit by not signing him to an irresponsible contract that would likely have cost the team down the road.

The Leafs organization has a history of giving out big contracts to players underserving of them. For a while in the pre-lockout era, it was to veterans, some bound for the Hall of Fame, who were in the twilight of their careers, looking for one last dash for a Stanley Cup. That Cup never came and those contracts ended up hurting the team in the long run. Then post-lockout, the Leafs tried to fix their drafting or managerial woes by signing players with experience in the league, but again, were a fraction of what they used to be once they donned the blue and white. Oftentimes, these signings were miscalculations of player ability versus age and player decline. The Leafs are building up a strong core from within and bringing in a big name like Stamkos, who would have commanded a bigger contract than what he signed in Tampa Bay, may have disrupted their ability to stay competitive in the long run.

On June 24, the Leafs selected Auston Matthews as the first selection in the 2016 NHL draft. He is pegged as a potential number 1 centre and is likely able to step in immediately and completely change the course of this franchise. After recently locking up Nazem Kadri to a longterm deal the Leafs are essentially set down the middle for when they plan to start contending for a playoff spot and beyond in two to three years. The Leafs also have Mitch Marner and William Nylander patiently waiting and preparing for regular NHL duty, both of whom have experience playing centre through junior (Nylander is more suited to play centre in the NHL, and did last season in his brief call-up). With a potential 3rd centre in that mix, there is little to no need to go out and spend on a free agent centre, regardless of who that free agent is. When this management group made their initial pitch to the fans, it was that this rebuild would be done by drafting, developing and making smart, calculated moves. So far, they have stayed on course. Now that their toughest test of controlling the urge to make an irresponsible signing is out of the way (thanks in part to Steve Yzerman and Stamkos), the Leafs can continue on their path.

If the Leafs want to be competitive for a while, and keep their core as well as have the money to pay for depth, a Stamkos deal would have been costly. By the time the Leafs truly are Stanley Cup contenders, players like Matthews, Marner and Nylander, arguably some of the most important players to the Leafs core will all need new contracts and depending on their success in the league through those first few years, it isn’t hard to imagine them commanding $5-7 million deals each. That, coupled with all the other contracts to their defense (Rielly will need a new deal two years after that) and depth, will make a GM awfully nervous. Chicago, for example, has done a masterful job at staying competitive despite matching eight year, $10.5 million per season deals for Kane and Toews. They recognized that with a core they mostly drafted and developed, they could remain competitive by rotating depth pieces and limit high spending on free agents. When they won their first Cup, most of their core was on very cap-friendly contracts. As these players got older and their contracts expired, they were paid handsomely, however, as seen from the 2016 Playoffs, their depth suffered from lack of cap room and they could not escape the first round. The Leafs could follow a similar process and potentially get to a stage one day with the pieces they have, where they compete for multiple Stanley Cups. But these core players too will need new contracts and with a big $10 million+ contract given to Stamkos, someone important to the core would eventually be forced out (similar to Saad, Shaw and others on the Blackhawks).

Stamkos is unquestionably talented and can change the look of a franchise completely. He has done a remarkable job with the Lightning in helping them become Cup contenders year after year. The Leafs, a team that suddenly has built up somewhat of a strength at centre, can now spend their remaining money elsewhere such as on defense or just stay idle and save that cap space until two to three years down the road when they need a player to push them over the top into a serious contender. Had Stamkos in fact left the Lightning and pursued another franchise like Toronto, it would be exciting at first but it would have meant the Leafs would be signing a player preparing for a decline in production.

Eric Tulsky published an article on SB Nation explaining the decline of NHL player production based on their age.

Points_aging_1_medium

According to Tulsky, the scoring rate at 5-on-5 per 60 minutes peaks just before age 25, then enters a steady decline. For the 26-year-old Stamkos, the saving grace is he is a powerplay specialist and one of the best players in the league at scoring with a man up. He has perfected the slap shot from the faceoff circle, thus explaining why nearly 35% of his career goals have been scored on the powerplay. A second article hosted on the SB Nation site explains that most players, even extremely skilled players, hit a decline in powerplay goals and shooting percentage by age 30. Had Stamkos signed a max deal in Toronto, he would be four years into his seven-year deal when he hits age 30 and will enter some sort of production decline. While he may put up similar stats to what he has done throughout his career in those first four years, by the time the Leafs would have expected to be annual playoff contenders, his decline would begin to take charge, the worst time for this to happen to a prized free agent signing. As seen through the past few Stanley Cup Finals, with parity at its highest, sometimes all it takes is for one team’s offense to go cold at the wrong time for another team to win the Cup. If Stamkos is not able to score at the same rate as he used to and enters cold streaks more frequently, the Leafs would therefore be burned by signing him and have to wait another three seasons before his contract would be up again, when the star centre is 33 years old. Now, as explained in the Tulsky article, the production drop off isn’t as rapid as I make it out to be here in this article. And elite players such as Stamkos oftentimes are outliers and face a slower decline than the average NHL player. However, every player is different and even elite players can still enter a decline at an early age.

One can argue that valuing Stamkos over some of the other centres in the Leafs organization is a move that could have been done. This would mean Stamkos would have slotted into the number one centre position with Matthews at number two, and Kadri either sliding to number three, or is traded to upgrade another position. Stamkos has made it clear he wants to be put in a prominent role and he wants to be a centre, and not a winger. Therefore with this scenario, it is likely that newly re-signed Nazem Kadri could have been the odd man out and be shipped off, which I have a hard believing the Leafs brass would be willing to do. Regardless, it is a decision the Leafs no longer have to worry about.

Lastly, it can’t be ignored that Stamkos has suffered a serious injury as well as blood clots. The devastating broken leg that kept the Markham native out of the Olympics was tough and despite the remarkably quick recovery, it is unknown the long term effects of that knee break. Many experts say the blood clot that Stamkos suffered from was one that most players recover from completely (including his teammate Andrei Vasilevskiy). However, the fact he suffered from it at all is enough to raise some red flags.

Conclusion

As many reporters who cover the team have noted, the Leafs management should and will be disappointed with Steven Stamkos’ decision. The Leafs organization would have found a way to make it work to make the ‘Hometown Boy’ the face of his hometown franchise. It would have been very exciting to sign such a big name free agent, who has put up elite level scoring numbers through his career. However, the Leafs have a lot of exciting players already that can make a serious impact in the league which some fans lose sight of because they haven’t truly made their mark in the NHL yet. Steven Stamkos has many good years ahead of him and has an excellent shot to win a Stanley Cup in Tampa Bay for the next five years. While it may be disappointing to some fans at first, the end result of a competitive Maple Leafs team for a longer period of time thanks to a well-managed salary cap is well worth the trade-off.

Leafs Lounge Podcast – March 7, 2016 – The Kids Are Alright

Following the Trade Deadline, several Marlies players were called up to the Leafs. We break down the debuts of those Marlies players and preview their play for the following week. We discuss who should be the next captain of the Leafs and discuss whether the Leafs’ prospect pool decreases the need to sign Steven Stamkos.