Are Maple Leafs gearing up to make run at Stamkos?
There's no guarantee that captain Steven Stamkos leaves the Lightning as a free agent this summer.
And if he does, it's still unclear whether Stamkos would even want to play for his hometown Maple Leafs, a rebuilding team in a rabid hockey market.
But it's widely believed the Maple Leafs plan to make a run at Stamkos, if he's available. And Tuesday's blockbuster, nine-player trade with Ottawa that unloaded captain Dion Phaneuf and created cap space certainly sparked speculation that Toronto is gearing up for the potential Stamkos sweepstakes this summer.
"This gives us the opportunity to do things," Maple Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello told reporters. "This was a transaction that certainly wasn't for today."
How about July 1? When Stamkos would become an unrestricted free agent, if he doesn't sign an extension with the Lightning. Tampa Bay has reportedly offered Stamkos a deal with an $8.5 million annual average.
Here's my take on it. The Maple Leafs were already going to go after Stamkos if he reached free agency, with or without Phaneuf. Of course, this move gives Toronto more cap flexibility, having shed Phaneuf's salary - $7 million for the next five years. Having also dealt Phil Kessel and David Clarkston in this past year, Toronto has a cap savings of $19.05 million a year moving forward, per ESPN's Pierre LeBrun. Lamoriello said not retaining any salary in this trade was "extremely important." So Toronto is in better position financially now moving forward.
There's also a vacant captaincy in Toronto, with Lamoriello saying the team doesn't plan to name one the rest of the season. That could mean that the next captain isn't on the current roster.
But that doesn't mean that that future captain is Stamkos. There's questions whether Stamkos would want to play in Toronto. And if he reaches free agency, Stamkos will have no shortage of suitors or offers, likely from teams that are in better position to win sooner than the Maple Leafs.
The truth is the Maple Leafs roster is pretty bare. Toronto, in its first year under coach Mike Babcock, is tied for the fewest points in the league with Columbus and Edmonton at 47. It ranks 27th in the league in scoring. Sure, the Maple Leafs said prospect Tobias Lindberg was key in this deal with Ottawa, with Toronto also netting defenseman Jared Cowen, forwards Milan Michalek, Colin Greening and a second-round pick in the 2017 draft. With this trade, the last-place Maple Leafs could also end up slipping to the No. 1 pick and landing prized center prospect Auston Matthews.
But Stamkos, who turned 26 Sunday, wants to win a Stanley Cup, that's his priority. Wouldn't the Lightning and it's impressive core, which came just two wins from hoisting the Cup in June, give him a better shot? Or, if it comes to it, another team in free agency?
Stamkos has maintained he wants to stay in Tampa Bay, and still hopes to get a deal done that would keep him with the only franchise he's ever known since getting drafted as an 18-year-old in 2008.
But the longer this contract saga drags out, and the closer it gets to July 1, the more any move by the Maple Leafs will be linked to landing the city's favorite son.
It just doesn't mean they will.