MONTREAL — The Maple Leafs made a blockbuster nine-player trade with Ottawa Tuesday, fueling speculation they were laying groundwork for an offseason offer for Lightning captain Steven Stamkos.
"This gives us the opportunity to do things," Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello said. "This was a transaction that certainly wasn't for today."
How about July 1? If Stamkos remains unsigned, he becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer and many believe his hometown Maple Leafs will make a strong bid. And in unloading captain Dion Phaneuf, who carried a $7 million cap hit the next five seasons, Toronto continues to gain more financial flexibility, with just $25 million committed to five players in 2017-18.
Stamkos, who has a full no-move clause, has maintained he wants to stay in Tampa Bay, remaining hopeful a deal can get done. The Lightning has reportedly offered Stamkos an extension with an $8.5 million annual average, though other teams, like the Maple Leafs, could potentially offer north of $10 million if he hits the open market.
Stamkos also has a strong desire to win the Stanley Cup, and the Maple Leafs are in rebuilding mode. Toronto, in its first year under coach Mike Babcock, entered Tuesday tied for the fewest points in the league.
"We're not ready to win," Babcock told reporters Tuesday.
In the Phaneuf deal, Toronto added prospect Tobias Lindberg, defenseman Jared Cowen, forwards Milan Michalek and Colin Greening and a second-round pick in the 2017 draft. But after this trade, the last-place Maple Leafs could also wind up with the No. 1 pick, giving them the best chance to take prized center prospect Auston Matthews.
It just doesn't guarantee that Toronto will land Stamkos.