There won’t be a backup plan if Leafs miss on Stamkos

In three days, we’ll likely see the whole Stamkos Saga (or #StamkosWatch, or whatever you want to call it) come to an end. The window for teams to talk to the one-time 60-goal-scorer got underway just hours after Toronto drafted Auston Matthews this past weekend, and you can bet that by now he has a good idea of what kind of money and situation he’ll be signing on for when free agency opens officially on Friday.

I’m no insider, but I think anyone who’s been paying attention to this story is starting to see a three-way race emerging for this prized free agent, and it looks all too familiar to one we saw just a year ago. It’s probably going to be Buffalo, Detroit, and Toronto, the same teams that went at it for Mike Babcock last spring, dominating the headlines again. But in comparison to the supposed Babcock war, now we’re talking about a lot more money on the table, all of which counts toward the salary cap. The game has changed, and Toronto might be wise to steer clear after a certain point. But can they?

Leafs supporters have been somewhat split in their opinions on Stamkos, but those in favour of bringing him in usually outline that it has to be within the framework of the rebuild. Folks are scared too high a number will hurt Toronto badly in three years when they run into new deals for Marner, Nylander, and Matthews. That sort of logic is sort of flawed, since there are still no guarantees these players turn out to be elite, at least besides Matthews. 

What the Leafs have run into is a rare circumstance where an all-world player with much of his prime left has somehow gotten to unrestricted free agency. Depending on who you believe, a return home may be the prime reason for that. This isn’t a free agent class where Stamkos happens to be the top target, for Toronto he has to be the only target.

If the Leafs strike out in their attempts to court Stamkos to Toronto this week, it isn’t like they can look to someone like Lucic, Staal, Vanek or Boedker as some sort of consolation. None of those players would make any sense given where the team is right now rebuild-wise, and wouldn’t make enough of a difference to warrant investing in.

Toronto is in a weird place where Stamkos would clearly kick their rebuild into turbo, but they don’t need him to turn the franchise around. Teams like Detroit or the Rangers, for example, given their downward trend, probably couldn’t say the same. In fact, I bet if you polled much of the Toronto fanbase right now, most would say “I’ll be ecstatic if they get him, and totally fine if they don’t”.

Looking at the Leafs’ depth chart or line combinations for next season, the list of players pushing for the NHL roster at forward probably looks something like this.

van Riemsdyk   Matthews    Nylander
Michalek Kadri Marner
Lupul Bozak Komarov
Greening Laich Soshnikov
Leipsic Holland Kapanen

If the Leafs are unsuccessful in landing Stamkos, it’s unlikely that list will change much, if at all. They might tinker with a bring-back of Parenteau, or take a look at another cheap UFA (one of those younger options like Pirri or Connolly could make sense), but when it comes to this free agency period, it’s basically Stamkos or nothing, and that seems totally okay. The team rolls on in the right direction, with or without a big shot in the arm. 

  • Canadian Hockey Fan

    Just a note on the depth chart – Hymannisnin there somewhere too. I think FLA and CGY will be players for Stamkos.

    No idea what he wants. Max $$$? Max cup chances? Max lifestyle? Max anonymity? All will factor in to decision.

    • JB#1

      I was an early, last September (, proponent for the Leafs NOT going after Stamkos.

      Since the draft lottery, I have opened up to the possibility of going after him – if the money was reasonable. Stamkos easily could become the face of the franchise (sorry Lou) and take the heat off Matthews, Nylander, and Marner.

      If the Leafs go after Stamkos and don’t get him my Plan B would be waiting on John Travares to see if he goes U.F.A. in 2018. If he doesn’t, my Plan C involves Connor McDavid and an offer-sheet!

      • CMpuck

        With Stamkos coming off the books in 7 you may be set up for Stamkos 2.0 in McDavid, if Stamkos/Matthews could land a cup I’d imagine McDavid would be tempted to become a hockey God in his hometown.

        We keeping saying the if the money is right, the ceiling seems to be 12, I’ve always liked the idea of overpaying one superstar because if forces you to nickel and time those mid tier players that often trip teams up when they over pay them.

        As for Tavares? Is it not worse that Tavares contract will run longer and in on the tail come in conflict with Marner and Nylander’s UFAs years?
        Stamkos have the perfect start/finish not to run that issue.

        Also Tavares might look for bigger dollars after Stamkos’ deal drive up the market.

        And thanks this is the first actual response to a reasonable question I’ve asked all year.

        • JB#1

          Hey CMPuck,

          I know where you’re coming from.

          For the past 9 months I’ve been the least popular person in my circle of friends for daring to say that going after Stamkos, no matter the cost, should not be seen as a foregone conclusion. i.e. I refused to drink the kool aid and have been hammered for my divergent idea.

          I honestly don’t think money will be the sole or even first criteria for Stamkos to make his decision. What exactly his criteria are, who knows? I certainly don’t.

          Bottom line, probably in less than a week, this whole Stamkos situation will be resolved one way or another and we’ll all have a better idea what exactly was driving Stamkos’ decision making process.

          At that point we can all start obsessing over whether John Tavares becomes a UFA and whether the Leafs should be preparing for him and/or whether an offer sheet should be prepared for Connor McDavid in a couple years when he exits his ELC.

          OK, EDM trolls, trash away…ha ha ha.

    • Jeremy Ian

      Stamkos is Plan B.

      Plan A is where we are now — and it’s going amazingly well. Shed contracts, bring in great picks and prospects, rebuild, fill the gaping hole in net if Bernier can’t establish himself. And in three years comes the big push. That’s Plan A. There’s still work to do — but just look at this thread: Connor Brown and Zach Hyman weren’t even on the original roster that Ryan posted, that’s how deep the team has become. And the Marlies will be stacked.

      If any team imagined Plan A to include Stamkos while he’s under contract with a great team like Tampa Bay, their management should be turfed out. When coming up with a plan, most people should have assumed that TB would work things out with their super star. Why? Because that’s what most teams do with their stars. Otherwise, why bother having a plan at all?

      It’s a weird anomaly that Stamkos is looking at free agency.

      Good on Leafs management to pivot to Plan B in light of this strange turn of events.

      But if it doesn’t work out, go back to Plan A as if Stamkos were supposed to have signed with TB all along.

      • CMpuck

        Splitting hairs, you shed contracts to make room for news ones, Plan A is both drafting well and landing elite talent. Plan A includes Stamkos as a goal, though if you’d like to think Hyman and Brown should be privileged above Stamkos in the Shannaplan blueprint, well, where else but Leafs Nation does that lie find support?

        Still haven’t answered the question of what’s to be done with that cap space.

        • Jeremy Ian

          Sorry, where exactly did I say that Hyman and Brown should be privileged above Stamkos? Something I am missing about my own prose, I guess?

          If the Stamkos option opens up, you go for him. Obviously. That’s switching to Plan B to respond to the opportunity. But when the Shanaplan started, it was a pipedream. Not a plan. That’s the point. There’s a reason you hardly ever, esp in the cap era, see free agent talent like Steve Stamkos on the market; so there’s no such thing as a “plan” that counts on something anomalous.

          As for blowing your wad of cash, just remember how the summer of 2013 went. Bolland, Clarkson, Bernier, five more years of Bozak at $4.25m. Etc.

          So, what do you do with the excess capacity? Use it wisely. Avoid the endowment effect — to overvalue what we already have (like cap space). Focus on the critical needs — which is why the Andersen signing was clever. Let’s hope it works out. But that’s a good use of $$.

          Of course they should sign Stamkos to the right deal. But let’s not whip ourselves into a frenzy and then feel like the Leafs failed if, instead, Buffalo decided to wreck a franchise by offering Stamkos an absurd contract.

          If you have a plan, one of keys to it working is to steer clear of auction fever. I guarantee you, there are some managers out there who are going to go malarial over Stamkos. I just hope Lou isn’t one of them. And I hope Stamkos sees that the overbidding GM will handicap the team, which means Stamkos never wins a Stanley Cup — even if he’s a little bit richer in the medium run.

          • Gary Empey

            Re – “auction fever.” That’s the very reason the owners insisted the NHL impose a Salary Cap. Causing the lockout. They even stated it was to save themselves from being so stupid.

            Imagine how this would play out now without the cap.

            All the player’s agents will be watching this transaction closely.

            This is going to set a precedent for all ELC’s and RFA’s on maximizing their earning at a young age in their prime.

  • Ultimate Sports'er

    Fun fact: Nylander perfers to play LW rather than RW when right handed. Just like ovi 😛

    Also, Brown and hyman are going to be on the leafs roster next year forsure. They are to good to leave off

  • Ultimate Sports'er

    Fun fact: Nylander prefers to play LW rather than RW when right handed. Just like ovi 😛

    Also, Brown and hyman are going to be on the leafs roster next year forsure. They are to good to leave off

    Also, Leo is a LW – similar to lupul, can play both but prefers left

  • Newleafs

    If it’s a choice for winning now Tampa is the best fit for Stamkos.
    If it’s a choice for winning soon, Buffalo has been aggressive in speeding up their rebuild.
    If it’s a choice for winning later, Toronto has the latest window of the three teams and won’t be aggressive with UFA significant signings. Good chance they end up the best team in the long term but it will take more time to get there.

    This article points out correctly that the Leafs aren’t going to be aggressive with UFA players if they don’t get Stamkos. In fact, They won’t be aggressive with other players if they land Stamkos. That’s going to be part of his decision.

    But it’s not only his decision.

    The Leafs have more power in this decision. They decide if he fits into their rebuilding plan (which they have emphasized is a drafting, long term, “era” building strategy). They decide if he fits into their potential lineup (Matthews is potentially a top 3-5 Center in the NHL, how does Stamkos fit with that in Mind?). They decide if his salary demands make sense and won’t conflict with resigning their younger skilled players.

    The decision has to both yes for Stamkos and Leafs management if he’s coming here. It’s a two part decision.

    During his interview with Darren Dregger in Russia, Babcock gave a response which was consistent with his reasons for joining the Leafs. Go to the original press conference when Babcock was hired and read why Babcock agreed to join the Leafs. I’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t because they were going to be aggressive in Free agency.

  • Canadian Hockey Fan

    I’d be shocked if it wasn’t Toronto, or even Tampa still. Detroit is not getting any younger and look to be headed for a rebuild soon. They’ve lost to Tampa in the first round the past two years. Buffalo is Buffalo, even though they’ll have a nice future as well. Hopefully he signs with the Leafs, but I guess we’ll see.

  • Canadian Hockey Fan

    I disagree with this. The leafs have shown they have Plan A, Plan B, Plan C etc with many fall backs and contingencies for various scenarios in the draft, trade deadline and previous off seasons.

    The leafs and their best in NHL analytics team are thoroughly prepared if Stamkos chooses to remain in Tampa with a number of alternative in their exhaustive scenario planning.

  • @ShawnMacLean

    I would think Hyman gets a spot before Soshnikov. Babcock loved his industrious style of play. He appears to be a perfect complementary player.

    Soshnikov would probably benefit more from playing 17 minutes a night for the Marlies (he was on their “4th line,” note the quotations..) last season. He looked great in his short NHL stint but twice he looked like he was going to miss some time to injury. Let him endure the rigors of big minutes in the rough n tumble AHL.

    All moot if Stamkos is signed though, as both likely AHL bound unless they can shed some cap.

  • Brent Wisken

    Babcock is a huge fan of Connor Brown. Brown should be on the depth chart, and will be given a big opportunity to make the Leafs this upcoming season.

  • giproc

    Not even sure a Plan B is needed. If they sign Stamkos and trade for a top pair dman, they’re going to be far more competitive this year and can spend the next couple years nurturing the young stars while filling occasional spots with call ups.

    If they don’t sign Stamkos they continue on the same path, just a little slower.

    I figure there are already 15-20 forwards and 2 goalies who are NHL ready. The short term issue is defence, not Stamkos.

  • magesticRAGE

    I’m OK with the patient approach, I’m 60% opposed to signing Stamkos, my concern being dollars, term, and clauses he will demand. I would slightly prefer to see what we have in the current lineup.

    • Jeremy Ian

      If it’s any consolation, Stamkos should worry if a team like Buffalo busts the bank on him — because by spending all their resources on him, they might cripple the team down the line and prevent Buffalo from being a serious contender. If Stamkos wants to make a mark, it’s not going to be with a long career playing on a team in Buffalo that makes it to the second round of the playoffs and gets bumped 3-4 years in a row because they don’t have the depth. In the longer run, he loses.

  • Hockey Hoser

    if he wants to win a cup why leave Tampa? they’re knocking on the door.

    if wants to play home then Toronto it is.

    if he wants to big money than neither of the above.

  • Gary Empey

    It takes a certain mindset to thrive in the centre of the hockey universe. Very few of the latest generation seek that out.

    Prime example: Rick Nash. New York might be the self-described “Big Apple”, but Nash can walk through Times Square without being recognised.

    Players such as Doug Gilmour loved being in the media spotlight and fan-centric Toronto. Mats Sundin, not so much, but he played well enough.

    Stamkos? We’ll see. My money is on Detroit because of the new arena, the Red Wings core and the proximity to the GTA. Close, but just enough away.