By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (July 23) – Two years. Twenty-four months. 730 days.
That’s roughly how long the Maple Leafs have to move up the National Hockey League ladder and prove they are on track toward contending for the Stanley Cup. If somehow achievable in that brief juncture, the club may be poised to land the biggest fish in franchise history.
From my perch, the notion of Steven Stamkos choosing to play at home during his prime NHL years is hardly inconceivable. Were he an unrestricted free agent this summer, Stamkos wouldn’t come near the Maple Leafs with a ten-foot hockey stick. Given, however, a proven and progressive game-plan, and the fortuitous development of a couple or three prospects between now and the summer of 2016, Brendan Shanahan and Co. could be in a much-different neighborhood. One that might shepherd the NHL’s purest goal-scorer to his own neighborhood of Markham, Ont. – 10 nautical miles northeast of downtown Toronto.
For the Leafs, it’s a finite target at which to take dead-aim.
Stamkos would join Borje Salming as the biggest non-trade acquisition in franchise history and follow the likes of Ted Kennedy, Max Bentley, Red Kelly, Rick Vaive, Doug Gilmour and Mats Sundin, all of whom were dealt for. He would immediately stand alongside Frank Mahovlich, Lanny McDonald and Vaive as the most gifted sniper to ever wear the blue-and-white uniform. And, he’d offer the Maple Leafs the caliber of superstar that has forever been mandatory among Stanley Cup winners.
A lot has to happen between now and then. Before they can even consider Stamkos, the Leafs – in my view – have to be under new direction on the ice and behind the bench. That will require trading one of Dion Phaneuf or Phil Kessel and replacing Randy Carlyle with a younger, avant-garde coach. Steve Spott is firmly in the on-deck circle and might already remind Stamkos of his coach in Tampa – Jon Cooper.
Both men achieved success in the American Hockey League – Cooper winning the 2012 Calder Cup with the Norfolk Admirals; Spott guiding the Toronto Marlies to the Calder semifinal this past season in his first year as a professional coach. Primarily for that effort, Spott has been elevated to the Maple Leafs as one of Carlyle’s assistants.
Another obvious factor in the pursuit of Stamkos will be the Leafs’ position relative to the salary cap in 2016-17. Given the NHL’s upward economic curve, that figure could well be in the $75 million range. Still, the Leafs will have to carefully manage their assets heading toward unrestricted free agency two summers from now. Considering the club is almost always up against the cap limit, it will require a strategic amendment – one that would be immeasurably aided by the rapid development of young players. If, for example, Fredrik Gauthier, Petter Granberg, William Nylander and Matt Finn prove NHL worthy between now and then – and if Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner become front-line defensemen in their early-contract years – the Leafs will be superbly positioned to attract and acquire a franchise-altering player.
Steven Stamkos ultimately wearing a Maple Leafs jersey isn’t the pipe-dream it appears to be today. With a cadre of enticing prospects already in the organization and an impressive array of draft talent available next summer, Leafs could celebrate the 50th anniversary of their last Stanley Cup triumph with an ethereal free agent acquisition.
The target is there. The Leafs should keep it clearly in focus.
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