TORONTO (June 30) — Conventional wisdom might suggest the Toronto Maple Leafs have lost a big opportunity one–half decade down the line now that Steven Stamkos has re–upped in Tampa. The notion of Stamkos, at 31 years of age and still in the prime of his career, riding shotgun with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and other young pups was largely appealing to fans of the hockey club.
Too bad there’s a salary cap.
In the National Hockey League prior to the lost season of 2004–05, this would have been a plausible scenario. Today, it compels a team to become fragmented; to essentially give away valuable components in order to stay beneath the payroll ceiling. The Maple Leafs are better off knowing they’ll be able to retain Matthews, Marner and Nylander (providing they develop) well beyond their years of entry–level salary. Which may not have otherwise been possible. By the 2020–21 season, when Stamkos likely begins to show signs of age, the Leafs will have many millions committed to their current prodigies. Perhaps too many million to keep them all… and Stamkos. It also provides the Leafs wiggle room if Hobey Baker Award winner Jimmy Vesey (Harvard University) becomes an unrestricted free agent on Aug. 15. Buffalo acquired his negotiating rights from Nashville and must sign Vesey before the mid–August deadline (for college players previously drafted). He’d be another wondrous addition to the stable of elite Toronto prospects.
THE LEAFS, AND OTHER TEAMS, COULD STILL HAVE A SHOT AT HARVARD PRODIGY JIMMY VESEY.
What the Leafs lost without having a shot at Stamkos is the chance to quickly and dramatically improve — perhaps not a tenet of the so–called “Shanaplan” but likely unavoidable. As I wrote here on Tuesday, going into next season with the most prolific and coveted free agent of all time (Stamkos); the top prospect in the world (Matthews); the top Junior player on the planet (Marner), and a goalie (Frederik Andersen) with regular–season and playoff credentials would make it awfully difficult for the Leafs to take baby steps. Nor would that have been a disaster. The Leafs are vying for sustainability in their rise toward contention. Andersen, at 27, and Stamkos, 26, would have been the oldest players in that scenario, with many good hockey years ahead. Now, the club will look elsewhere for established help up front, and on defense.
If you pay attention to this corner, you know I’ve been banging the David Backes drum. The prevailing response has been, in my view, knee–jerk and rather shallow. “Why sign a 32–year–old player and speed up the re–build?” I am asked. “Isn’t that what the old Leafs always tried to do?” The answer is yes… and no. Perhaps never before has Toronto been graced with such a tantalizing trio of prospects (Matthews, Marner, Nylander). Signing Backes in unrestricted free agency, if possible, wouldn’t be about hastening the process, nor would it choke off the Leafs cap maneuverability four and five years down the road. It would provide the club, conversely, one of the most respected players in the NHL; an instant captain and trump–card for Mike Babcock, and a marvelous cushion at the key center–ice spot for Matthews, in particular.
By merely observing Backes every day, the Leaf newbies would learn about commitment and comportment from a veteran that comes from a winning environment in St. Louis. And, one that still has plenty left in the tank. There is no–such player currently on the Toronto roster, nor is it written anywhere that youth cannot effectively commingle with experience. Of course, we have no idea whether the Leafs are at all enthused about Backes. Lou Lamoriello wouldn’t admit to being wet while taking a shower. More of a challenge will result from convincing Backes to sign with a club that just finished 30th in the NHL — even if it has a big opportunity to gain ground in the next couple of years. Money and reasonable term are available… and the Maple Leafs of Lamoriello and Brendan Shanahan are rather adept at luring the apple of their eyes.
THE LEAFS WOULD DO THEMSELVES NO HARM BY TAKING A RUN AT PENDING UFA DAVID BACKES.
More than likely, now, the Leafs will turn their attention toward the blue line. There is speed and mobility with Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner, but not nearly enough toughness or defensive acumen. For the Leafs to become a legitimate contender — and as I’ve written numerous times — a Norris Trophy candidate must somehow be acquired or developed. No such commodity exists in the Toronto organization, nor is such a player available (at least, not without trading an equivalent, as we saw in the P.K. Subban–Shea Weber swap involving Montreal and Nashville). As such, the Maple Leafs will explore depth options.
Veteran Dan Hamhuis, 33, will be available as an unrestricted free agent from Vancouver — likely at a reasonable cost. He’s a good positional player and penalty killer. Lamoriello could also look at a rival club with cap issues. Anaheim, for example, may have difficulty signing restricted free agent Hampus Lindholm to a multi–year extension. The 22–year–old Fin sees the ice well and has a good deal of offensive flair.
One avenue I would strongly encourage Maple Leaf fans to avoid is turning their lonely eyes (and fantasies) toward elite center John Tavares. The Mississauga, Ont. native can become a UFA in the summer of 2018, at 27 years of age. It is possible that no player in the NHL would more–perfectly mesh with the Blue and White. It is also possible that Lamoriello will write a kiss–and–tell book in the next six months. In other words, forget about it. The New York Islanders will secure Tavares for the remainder of his career well before he can even sniff the open market. There will be no repeat of the last–minute Stamkos suspense.