Thursday, May 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Jones: Steven Stamkos to Toronto makes sense

When certain teams from up north come to Amalie Arena to play the Lightning, you can see the allegiances of the crowd based on the colors in the stands.

You see red when the Canadiens, Blackhawks and Red Wings are here, orange when the Flyers are in town, dark blue when the Rangers visit and lots of black and gold when the Bruins and Penguins come calling.

But you never can tell what the makeup of the crowd is when the Maple Leafs are in town, as they are tonight, because the color scheme of Toronto's uniform is the same as the Lightning's.

Which leads us to this point: When you watch Lightning captain Steven Stamkos skating tonight, it won't take much imagination to picture him in a Toronto sweater.

Unfortunately for Lightning fans, next year at this time it might not take any imagination at all. Stamkos actually could be a member of the Maple Leafs.

Stamkos can become a free agent this summer, and you can't get through a couple of hockey shifts without speculation that the Toronto-born Stamkos will end up playing for his hometown team. Rumors ramp up even more when the Lightning plays the Maple Leafs.

So far, everybody is saying the right things.

Stamkos says he wants to remain in Tampa Bay. The Lightning says it wants Stamkos to return. The Leafs aren't saying anything because they aren't allowed to say anything.

But let's face facts: Stamkos going to Toronto makes perfect sense.

The Maple Leafs are in rebuilding mode. They are looking to build around a star player. They don't have a star player at the moment. They have money to spend. Stamkos is a star player. He could be available.

Of course Toronto wants Stamkos. The Leafs haven't had a legitimate star since Mats Sundin, but Stamkos would be even bigger because he grew up just down the road. Oh, yeah, he's a heck of a hockey player, too.

So Toronto wants Stamkos, but would Stamkos want Toronto?

First, dismiss this crazy idea that Stamkos doesn't want to play in Toronto because of the pressure of playing there.

True, some players would rather avoid such a burden. Vinny Lecavalier never wanted to go back to Montreal; the Canadiens have a history of incredible success that Lecavalier would have felt immense pressure to continue. He would have been expected to be the next Guy Lafleur, the next Jean Beliveau, the next Rocket Richard.

That's not the case in Toronto. The Leafs have been one of the NHL's most disappointing franchises over the past 40 years. They haven't won — or even played for — a Stanley Cup since 1967. Since then, franchises in nontraditional markets Tampa Bay, Dallas, Carolina and Anaheim have won Cups. Heck, the Florida Panthers have appeared in more Cup finals than the Leafs over the past four decades.

The bar is not very high for Toronto, and any success Stamkos might bring would be welcomed by the Leafs faithful.

Besides, it's just not in Stamkos' DNA to be wary of pressure from the media or fans.

To be frank, I don't think the media in Tampa Bay or the fans of the Lightning are any less knowledgeable or demanding than the media or fans in Toronto. Toronto just has more of both.

Stamkos has come under heavy criticism in the past in Tampa Bay, especially when he has gone through postseason scoring troubles, and he has never let it rattle him on or off the ice. He also has handled the media, at home and around the league, well even as questions about his potential free agency increase.

Stamkos is perfectly wired to play anywhere, including — and maybe even especially — hockey's epicenter.

And Stamkos might actually want to play in Toronto. We're talking about his hometown. When you're born and raised in Toronto, nothing is bigger than the Maple Leafs. Most hockey-playing kids grow up wanting to play there. What makes us think Stamkos is any different?

Is the Lightning closer to a Stanley Cup than Toronto? Maybe today. But fortunes can change very quickly in the NHL, and it seems unlikely that today's standings would play a meaningful role in a decision that could have the greatest impact on his career and life.

Money, on the other hand, will play a key role, and Toronto might be willing to back up an armored truck for him. If you believe the early reports that the Lightning is offering $8.5 million a year, Stamkos should tell Tampa Bay that it needs to get lost. Stamkos is going to want north of $10 million no matter where he plays, and no one should blame him.

The Lightning might try to sell him on the idea that there's no state income tax in Florida, but what happens if Stamkos ends up traded to a team that does play in a state or country with higher taxes? If I'm Stamkos, I'd say, "Pay me fair market value and let me worry about the taxes.'' Plus, endorsement opportunities might be greater elsewhere, particularly Toronto.

This isn't to suggest that Stamkos is leaving for Toronto, or even should leave for Toronto.

This is, however, admitting what Lightning fans don't want to hear: Stamkos could definitely end up in Toronto.

It's plain to see.

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