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Should the Leafs pursue Steven Stamkos?

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Spoiler alert! Yes.

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

I can't believe I even need to write this post.

Since Steven Stamkos' allegedly slippery thumb fuelled Like-Ghazi, speculation about the star centre signing with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs has heated up. Makes sense; Stamkos can deny all he wants, but he seems to accidentally "like" a lot of tweets about him coming to Toronto, which makes for a pretty selectively slippery thumb. He wouldn't be the first athlete to subversively show his true intentions through the click of a button on Twitter: recall Evander Kane, then with the Jets, liking a post about being traded to the Flyers. It was later confirmed that Kane had requested a trade that offseason.

If you asked me a year ago, I'd be relatively unconvinced the Leafs would be in the conversation for Stamkos. Why, conventional logic would dictate, would he want to leave the sunny, low-tax confines of a winning Lightning team to play in hockey's media fishbowl for a rebuilding team?

According to rumblings most recently confirmed by James Mirtle, Stamkos may not see eye-to-eye with Lightning coach Jon Cooper. Bolts GM Steve Yzerman recently made a commitment to Cooper in the form of a multiyear extension, which may mean the writing is on the wall. As far as Leaf fan logic goes, they landed Mike Babcock as coach against all odds, so why not Stamkos? Toronto is Stamkos' hometown, and they have the money to pay him what he's worth. Throw in the fact that Brendan Shanahan may be able to sell ice to Nunavut, and it's a perfect storm of speculation.

But, this post isn't about whether Stamkos would want to play in Toronto. It's about whether the Leafs would want Stamkos. Seems like a legit question. I mean, if your celebrity crush asked you out on a date if/when you were single, you'd totally have to think about it, right? Or if someone handed you a briefcase stacked with $100 bills, you'd want to mull over whether all that money in your bank account is the right fit? These are the kind of tough questions we face in life.

So, do we want Stamkos? Should we? If you have things to do and think this whole post is pointless, my answer is unequivocally yes. You can now save your time and go about your day. If, however, you require some convincing and/or want me to show my work, on we go.

Point 1: Stamkos is good

This is kind of self-explanatory. Steven Stamkos is a very good hockey player. Like, arguably a top 5 player in the NHL right now good. Good players help make the teams they play for good. The Toronto Maple Leafs do not have many good players. They are currently not a good team. Their goal is to be a good team eventually. They will achieve this by acquiring good players such as Stamkos.

Since a "bad" rookie season of 23 goals and 46 points in which he was misused by then-Lightning coach Barry Melrose, Stamkos has put up elite numbers in every season. He hit the 90-point plateau three years in a row from 2009 to 2012, scoring 51, 45, and 60 goals in those years, respectively. In the following seasons, shortened by a lockout and a leg injury, he was over a point per game, and scored 29 goals in 48 games in 2012-13, and 25 in 37 GP in 2013-14.Over a full 82-game season, these numbers would translate to 50 and 55 goals, respectively.

In the last two seasons, he hasn't hit those numbers, but he's still very, very good. He still scored 43 goals last year, and in what is arguably a "down" year this season, he is still on pace for 30 goals.

Let's unpack this "bad" season a little more, shall we? Stamkos has an even-strength shooting percentage of 7.2%, the lowest of his career. Last season, when he had "only" 43 goals, it was 9.3%, which is still worse than all but his rookie season. His TOI/GP is lower in the last two seasons than in years in which his offense flourished.

In addition to luck and usage, the quality of his linemates has gone down. From 2009 to 2014, he was on a line with Martin St. Louis until the latter was traded to the New York Rangers. He has since spent the bulk of his time with Ryan Callahan and Alex Killorn.

Still, unless you expect him to continue having the lowest shooting percentage of his career, Stamkos will rebound this year. He will in all likelihood score north of 40 goals this season. We are talking about a guy who is all but guaranteed to score 40+ goals potentially hitting free agency. In the salary cap world, this almost never happens.

The free agency thing is a point I can't stress enough: the Leafs may be able to get a guaranteed 40-goal (and potentially 50+ goal) scorer without giving up any assets. I don't know how you turn this down.

Point 2: The salary cap will be fine

Stamkos isn't coming to Toronto without a significant cost, however. After Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane signed matching $10.5 million AAV extensions with the Chicago Blackhawks, the market for a player like Stamkos will be high. The bidding on the open market will likely start at $11 million a season, and probably reach $12 million. I think he's probably going to get 7 years and $84 million, if I had to guess.

Assuming Stamkos got $12 million to play in Toronto, he'd take up 16% of the team's $74.5 million salary cap. People may balk at this, but it's not that unusual. Kane and Toews presently occupy 30% of Chicago's cap space. Crosby and Malkin make up 26% of Pittsburgh's. Ovechkin alone is 13% of Washington's. The fact is that if you want elite talent, you have to pay for it.

The Leafs, however, are in a better space than most to pay for an elite player. For one thing, they are the richest team in the league, so money is no object. The Leafs have $38,625,000 in open cap space with six RFAs, only two of whom- Nazem Kadri and Morgan Rielly- are likely to command larger sums. While the Dion Phaneuf contract is a boat anchor, moving Tyler Bozak or Joffrey Lupul to free up more space is not out of the question. The best players that are currently Leafs property- William Nylander and Mitch Marner- will likely be on entry-level deals until 2019.

In any event, worrying about the cap is thinking about things backwards. If a player like Stamkos becomes available, you make room for him, and then figure out the rest later. Other teams seem to be doing just fine at building good teams around superstar players. It's a good problem to have.

But, is he worth that money based on future performance?

Point 3: Stamkos will be as good through 2023 as he is now

The one concern I've heard about Stamkos is that his production has peaked, therefore his future performance won't be worth what he will be paid.

To that, I say hogwash.

This isn't some 32-year old veteran we're discussing here. Stamkos will be 26 heading into next season, and the Leafs can only sign him until 2023, when he will be 33. According to a UBC study, Stamkos isn't even at his peak performance age yet, which is 28 for forwards. Elite forwards- which Stamkos undoubtedly is- generally peak at ages 27 to 29, with no significant drop in production until their late 30s.

If this study is true, and Stamkos falls within the norm, his expected peak will fall under Years 2-4 of his next contract, and he will continue producing at the rate he is now for the length of that contract. In simpler terms, it is a likely bet that Stamkos will still be producing at an elite level by the expiry of his next contract.

Conclusion

I shouldn't even need to persuade anyone of the benefits of Stamkos. Stamkos is good. Elite, in fact. The kind of elite player a winning team builds their franchise around. In the salary cap era, where the pre-UFA extension is the norm, it is extremely rare that a player of this caliber becomes available at all, much less without having to give up assets. If the Leafs are in a position where they can sign Stamkos, they should.

Yes, it will cost a lot. Top-end talent isn't cheap. Yes, the Leafs have made poor decisions in the past at UFA. But, this isn't signing David Clarkson to a seven-year deal. It's not signing 32-year old Eric Lindros well past his prime. What we're talking about is a 26-year old who is easily a top 5 goal scorer in the NHL right now. He has scored 60 before, he'll likely score 50 again, and he's sure to score 40 for years to come.

Signing Stamkos would make the Leafs better without giving up any assets. How it is anything but a win is beyond me.