Imagine a romantic comedy in which the protagonist longs for someone for years, hoping that one day they can be with that person. There's just one hitch: that person is in a long-term relationship with someone else. Hope seems slim that it'll ever happen, until one day....it seems a little more likely. And the next day, it seems a little more likely. And the day after that, and the day after that....well, you get the idea.
Eventually, the target of the protagonist's affection appears to be on the rocks with their current significant other, and a breakup seems imminent. Suddenly, it seems like the protagonist's dream might be realized! There may be other suitors, but there's always been a hint of mutual affection abound that makes this match a very real possibility.
So then what happens? Does our protagonist run as fast as they can to that special person's house, get on their front lawn, boom box over head, and blast "Pony," or whatever it is kids listen to these days?
No. Our protagonist runs away. Far, far away. Now that this person might be interested, our protagonist doesn't want to go through with it. Excuses are abound. Life is fine as it is! What if this doesn't work out? This could be a huge risk! And so on and so forth.
Generally, in the movies, this is where it sets up for some grand romantic moment set up to mid-2000s mood rock. But, in our world, it doesn't. The movie just abruptly ends here.
If this scene sounds familiar, it's not because you saw it on Netflix; it's because, as a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, you've been living it every damn day with Steven Stamkos.
The GTA-born player has been doted on by the Toronto faithful pretty much since he came into the league. You may recall Leafs Nation wanting to tank their 2007-08 season (oh, how little has changed!) for the right to draft him with the 1st overall pick. When he ended up with the Tampa Bay Lightning, there was that glimmer of hope, but it never seemed like a reality.
Then, sometime around 2014, a whole two years before his current contract was set to expire, rumours became abound. The hope was there, but it didn't seem realistic. After all, Toronto was a mess. Their newly-extended coach and GM were buffoons, and the team had just played themselves out of a playoff spot with 14 games left in the season. Tampa, on the other hand, was a team on the rise; even without an injured Stamkos for much of the year, they managed to clinch second place in the Atlantic Division, their first postseason berth since 2011. Despite a poor postseason showing, there was boundless potential. Throw in sunny weather, low taxes, and a media with sense of personal boundaries, and it seemed very unlikely Stamkos would bolt (pun very much intended).
But, here we are in 2016, and suddenly it's very real. Tampa has a glut of RFAs and not enough space to keep everyone. Toronto is rebuilding under smarter management, and looks to be a real threat in a matter of time. Rumblings are Stamkos and Lightning coach Jon Cooper may not see eye-to-eye on 91's usage and deployment.
This could happen, and now that it could, Leaf fans suddenly seem to want anything but for it to happen.
The case for Stamkos has been discussed so much that it's beyond beating a dead horse; in fact, those posts are probably being used right now in Ms. Featherworth's Grade 2 Art class at an elementary school near you. I discussed it in December. Our Acting the Fulemin had a much more analytical longform piece on the issue recently. That is not the purpose of this post.
The purpose of this post is to deconstruct why there is so much opposition to the Leafs trying to sign probably the most elite player to hit the open market in years when there's a very good chance they could land him. And why that is wrong.
1) "We have Auston Matthews; we don't need Stamkos"
In case you have been living under a rock for the past two weeks, you are aware the Leafs won the draft lottery. It seems the conventional logic that came from this event was that winning the right to draft Auston Matthews meant that we shouldn't pursue Stamkos because they're fine as is! They don't need no more better players! Nah, this is fine! Eat at Arby's!
Excuse me, but, what is our worry here? That the last place team in the NHL in 2015-16 may acquire too many good players?! What championship team has thought this way? There's still a long way to go, and every little bit helps.
This main argument breaks down into two sub-arguments, which I'll detail below.
2) "This is contrary to the rebuild!," or some variation of that
One common refrain I've heard from Leaf fans opposed to signing Stamkos is that it is sacrosanct to the very nature of the rebuild. People envision this land where the Leafs, lost in the wilderness for years, accumulate high picks, and build a core consisting entirely of young players on ELCs, containing nobody of significance over the age of 25.
I'm here to tell you that's a whole lot of bunkum.
First of all, people need to stop believing that there is one conventional way to rebuild; that the Leafs are going along the One True Path to rebuilding and, should they veer off what is perceived to be that Path, they will wither and die like a dehydrated flower.
The problem with this is there is no conventional timeline for a rebuild. The consensus is that 2014-15 was the Leafs' Year 0 (i.e. going scorched earth on the existing framework), and Year 1 (2015-16) the first rebuilding year; people expect a slow rebuild culminating in CUPZZZZZ in about Year 5, but it often isn't that cut and dry.
Assuming 2007-08 was Chicago's Year 1, they were a playoff team by Year 2, and a Cup champion in Year 3. Pittsburgh was a playoff team in Year 2, and a Cup champion in Year 4. Washington took until Year 3 to make the postseason, and....well, we're still waiting for the latter part. These are the more linear rebuilds.
Not everything is that conventional, though. When did Los Angeles start rebuilding its core? Was it when they drafted Anze Kopitar in 2005, or Drew Doughty in 2010? What about Tampa Bay? They rebuilt from 2008-2010, made a conference final run, then rebuilt again from 2012-2013. St. Louis? Rebuilt from 2006-2008, made a playoff appearance in 2009, then continued rebuilding in 2010-2011. Not everything works in incremental progression.
The notion that the Leafs are expected to be slightly better every season until they're the best is sure tempting, but it flies in the face of pretty much every NHL success story we've seen. It also defies the fact that the team has had five top 10 draft picks since 2009 that will form the core of next season's team; how many more do we need to be good?!
I think the real concern among some people is that signing Stamkos would be "rushing" the rebuild, but look at all these teams I cited: they became very good very fast. If adding that to our roster means we're good a year ahead of schedule, why is that a problem? People seem to conflate this with Brian Burke trading two first rounders for Phil Kessel, but the difference there is that Burke gave up (very good) assets. Stamkos costs the team nothing except for money (which MLSE has lots of).
Ah yes, I know where you're about to go with this. Don't worry; I have you covered.
3) "But the cap space!"
Inevitably, people's biggest worry about Stamkos is the cost. A player of his calibre is likely to command north of $10MM per season on the open market. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane set a precedent by signing matching $10.5MM AAV deals last season. Stamkos may match that, but also go higher given that he is testing the open market rather than signing with his current team prior to July 1. An $11M AAV is not unreasonable.
The Leafs, however, are in a better position cap-wise than many people may think. The core of their team is relatively young and cheap. Their cap space situation is better than most teams. They have some big contracts, but using that as justification is odd, as that assumes every single player on the Leafs' cap will be in 2016-17. Should the Leafs acquire Stamkos, they will need to move a centre. A prime trade candidate would be Tyler Bozak and his very reasonable $4.2MM AAV cap hit. All indications appear that Joffrey Lupul will not return to the team in one way or another. Erasing those two contracts alone make up close to 90% of what the Leafs would need to pay Stamkos.
This argument also assumes that Milan Michalek ($4MM AAV) will not leave the NHL for Europe, which according to speculation, is a very real possibility. It also assumes that Brooks Laich ($4.5MM) and Colin Greening ($2.65MM) will definitely remain on the roster, and are not in danger of being demoted/waived/otherwise moved to make room for younger, cheaper depth.
Granted, there is a long-term concern for Stamkos. An $11MM Stamkos now, some say, is not the same as an $11MM Stamkos six years from now. I won't deny that they might be right. I will deny that $11MM in 2016-17 is the same as $11MM in 2022-23.
The thing about the salary cap is it is always rising. Only in one full season has the cap failed to increase by more than $2MM (2009-10, when the cap increased from $56.7MM to $56.8MM). In seven years leading up to next season, the cap has increased from $56.8MM to $74MM. The consequences of a single contract under that increase are drastic. In 2010, an $11MM contract would be 19% of a team's cap hit; next season, it'll be 15%.
As Stamkos gets older and, as conventional logic dictates, his play regresses, his cap hit will be constant, but the amount of overall space it takes up will not. In strict percentages of total salary cap, his cap hit will likely be more of a burden in Year 1 than Year 7.
The worry people have there is that the Leafs' core will cost substantially more. Marner and Nylander have expiring ELCs in 2019, and Matthews will be due for a new deal in 2020, among others. Stamkos, say some concerned Leaf fans, will get awfully expensive while negotiating other contracts around Year 5.
Let's get two things straight here. First, let's not speculate what's going to happen cap-wise 3-5 years from now. There is a lot of important information we simply don't know: how high the cap will be, what other salary commitments the Leafs will take on, performance level of ELC players that will directly impact their next contract, who gets traded, and so on. To try and speculate that Stamkos will render the Leafs' cap situation problematic in about 2020 is akin to predicting whether it will rain three years from today. You simply don't have enough information.
The second thing is to just listen to what it is people are worried about. People are worried about making a number of contracts fit. In other words, they are literally worried we may have too many good players. Too many good players you say? GASP! The horror! As a fan of what is presently the last place team in NHL, I sure don't want that! No sirree!
The bottom line is this: when you have the opportunity to achieve elite talent and it can fit within your budget, you make it work. There's always room. We may have to make tough choices someday; that's probably a good thing, as it means we have way too many good players.
4) "Stamkos will be overpaid and underperforming"
I can't blame people for being a little gun shy about free agency, as it has, with few exceptions, suited the Leafs well. The Burke years brought about a disastrous glut of overpaid depth UFAs (Colton Orr, Colby Armstrong, Mike Komisarek, and Tim Connolly, to name a few). The wounds of the Nonis era are fresh in our minds: we handed David Clarkson the worst contract in salary cap history, and needed Dale Tallon to save us from ourselves on Dave Bolland. I get it.
But, I think the aversion to signing a UFA of Stamkos' calibre comes with a lot of popular misconceptions about free agency and age.
People correctly observe that UFA contracts are somewhat inefficient: you're paying for future output based on past performance, with no guarantee that a player will maintain that performance. It is true that the Leafs would be paying top dollar for Stamkos based on 50-60 goal seasons that he probably will not achieve in a Leafs uniform.
There is no doubt a market inefficiency with free agency, but this is where the narrative seems to wash away common sense. To hear it from some, Stamkos, now having hit UFA status, has hit the point in his career where the clock will strike midnight and revert back to a pumpkin. By the culmination of this deal, he'll be a practically paleolithic 33 years of age. Some have argued he's regressed already.
First, let's get one thing clear. Steven Stamkos is 26. He'll be the exact same age at the start of the 2016-17 season as old fogies like Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner, both of whom are committed to this team long-term. Kadri, in fact, re-signed through 2022, when he will turn 32. Are we not then equally concerned about the prospect of Old Man Kadri stumbling along the ice six years from now, trying not to break a hip?
Irony aside: yes, I am aware Kadri was re-signed to a very team-friendly $4.5MM AAV. Yes, it is a good deal. Yes, Stamkos will not receive a team-friendly deal. It's because he's a UFA whereas Kadri was not. Also, he is a very, very, very good player. My point is how people perceive two people that are the same age. If Stamkos' term frightens you most based on age and performance, I fail to see how Kadri's would not.
Some people also think Stamkos is already an Old Maid, as over his last two seasons, his offensive output has decreased to- lord have mercy- 43 and 36 goals in 2014-15 and 2015-16, respectively. Fulemin has analyzed this much better than I can, but the long and short of it is that factors like linemates and shooting luck have played a part. Meanwhile, who plays on his wing in Toronto? JVR? Marner? Move Nylander to the wing? Yeah, I'd say 40 goals is a safe bet.
5) "I am an unnamed PPP writer that is a Bolts fan and am side-eyeing you right now."
Let's call this hypothetical person.....oh, Achariya R. Hmm, no; too obvious. A. Rezak.
Anyway, your team is still going to be among the best in the East. Step off.
We've beat this point into the ground, but Stamkos is one of the elite goal scorers in the game, and has a lot of good hockey left in him. There is also a chance Toronto could sign him, which is rare since elite players seldom hit the open market in free agency. He's the most elite piece this team could add without mortgaging any future assets. Should Toronto do it? Of course they should!
I'm sure you're concerned about this, that, or the other thing, but don't be. Stop overthinking it. Stop running away from everything you've ever wanted.