It's very easy to cast aside Toronto-fueled roster-bating with regards to the Tampa Bay Lightning's captain, Steven Stamkos.
Adam Proteau has been all but sure of it since last July.
Most of the Leafs nation (no pun intended), even the most skeptical among them, are starting to believe, too.
There's good reason for all this, of course. Elliotte Friedman is not a rumor monger, so when he says the Lightning are "preparing for all Stamkos possibilities", people are right to listen, and to wonder; just what will happen with #91?
It's still a process
We've known for some time that this negotiation wouldn't be easy. "Stammergeddon, Part 1" took months, and that's when the player in question was still an RFA with far less leverage than he currently holds as a pending UFA.
The player himself wasn't expecting a quick resolution heading into the summer:
"Obviously I went through a contract talk five years ago, but that's a little different when you're a restricted free agent and even that went past July 1 and you started getting the questions and the rumors and all that fun stuff. So I think having gone through that, it's kind of helped me a little bit not to panic when things don't happen right away."
There are a lot of factors to consider; he's certainly deserving of a max or near-max deal based on production, but the situation with the Canadian dollar obviously should give any smart organization pause; will the cap continue to rise in increments big enough to keep the home-grown talent around him? Stamkos is a world-class sniper, no doubt, but he's most effective with skilled puck handlers, play-drivers and play makers around him.
The simple fact that the deal isn't signed yet isn't necessarily an indicator that he's leaving; it might be, but there was no version of this summer that saw Stamkos re-signed in July. If you thought there was, you're not paying attention.
More than a few things working in Tampa Bay's favor
While the conversation always begins and ends with the hometown Toronto Maple Leafs, and there's no reason to think Stamkos won't at least consider going home, it's weird to see the discussion move more towards the idea that the Leafs are the frontrunners to sign him.
The fact that he's not signed already does mean there's a lot for the player, his family, and his agent to consider, almost certainly including whether or not a relocation to Toronto in 2016 is a move he wants to make. But don't forget everything about Tampa Bay that, for now, should have the Lightning as the favorites to retain their captain.
- The lack of state income tax means Stamkos' take-home salary is higher with Tampa Bay than just about anywhere else. (blah blah Toronto endorsements blah blah).
- The Lightning, under the current CBA, can offer an extra (8th) year raising the total value of the contract.
- Playing for a contender is important to more and more athletes today, perhaps even moreso than salary or location, and Steven Stamkos is a proud, driven athlete with a will to win. The Lightning won two games in the Stanley Cup Final last year. The Leafs drafted 4th overall.
There's no doubt that the Leafs are building something under current management; looking at Pension Plan Puppets' Top 25 Under 25 rankings or The Leafs Nation prospect rankings, you'll see a lot of praise for a deep system not unlike what we've gotten used to reading about the Lightning during the Vinik/Yzerman era.
In fact, a lot of the discussion around the Leafs now sounds like the Lightning from 3-4 years ago, which raises an important point -- the Leafs are still at least a few seasons away from true contention. Is that a leap that Stamkos wants to make? He's young, sure, but jumping from Tampa to Toronto essentially hits the reset button on his contention chances. He'd have to be patient, wait for young players to develop, and trust his ownership and management to put the pieces in place -- all over again, starting from scratch.
If position really is a sticking point that's the dumbest thing I've ever heard
This whole "center or wing" hubbub is dumb.
No, it's really dumb. If that's a legitimate concern for the team, as has been reported, then Steve Yzerman deserves a smack upside the head. Valtteri Filppula is a fine player and an important contributor but he was signed as a stopgap center while we waited to see if Tyler Johnson could be a top-6 center.
That question has been answered. If Stamkos sees himself as a center let the man play center. Thankfully, Stamkos himself seems to think this question is silly:
Stamkos: "I proved in the playoffs I can play wherever. I've played center my whole career, but I'm going to do what's best for the team."— Joe Smith (@TBTimes_JSmith) September 8, 2015
The whole question is especially bothersome and pointless because Tampa Bay's offensive system is so dynamic; all three forwards move around the entire rink. Who is playing center essentially comes down to who takes the draws, as each set of three forwards (F1-F2-F3) has different defensive and positional responsibilities depending on the specific trio that's on the ice; Stamkos might be the "center" in one grouping, moving down low to support the defense, and the first guy out of the zone looking for a breakaway on another. Not to mention Jon Cooper's willingness to run with 11 forwards and 7 defensemen, which throws all consistent line chemistry and positional stability out the window.
Easier for me to buy the org. has decided to bide its time and see which way the economic winds blow.— Mike Gallimore (@mikegallimore) September 8, 2015
The last bit to keep in mind with this, though, was the organization's decision to move Jonathan Drouin to center in training camp and the year he spent in Halifax in the middle of the ice. Yzerman is on record as saying they "see him [Drouin] as a center", presumably because of his puckhanding and distributing ability. A playmaking center and a sniping winger is about as traditional/cliche as it gets for line-building in hockey, and this could be in the team's long-term plans.
Still. Balking during contract negotiations over, essentially, who is going to take 500 faceoffs and who is going to take 100 is, to borrow a word from Jon Cooper, "asinine".
Remember the headline
"Preparing for all possibilities".
That's the headline in question that sparked the latest flare-up of Stammergeddon 2.0.
But this is Steve Yzerman we're talking about. Preparing for all outcomes -- testing the waters to make a trade, thinking of all angles ahead of time and preparing for outcomes A, B, C, D and E -- that's just how this man operates. He's one of the sharpest executives in the entire league. He was recently recognized for it.
I'd be more surprised to hear the team wasn't looking into every option with Stamkos.
Yzerman always does his homework. Stamkos might one day leave the Lightning. But that's an eventuality that Yzerman, and the Lightning, will be prepared to weather. They'll either trade him for a small fortune or bask in the cap space he'll afford them. They'll retool their offense, they'll find some more goals somewhere else, and they'll move on. The truth of the matter is, the Lightning will be a good team in 2016-17 with or without their current captain. They'd certainly be better with the game's premiere goal-scorer, but the team is, right now, built to endure losing him. It's up to the player now if this is a situation he wants to be a part of long-term or not.
Give it more time
It's frustrating that people like me keep saying this, but there's nothing else we can say, really.
If this drags on much longer, will it be a distraction? Yes, absolutely. Probably moreso for the fans than the players, who are professionals that all understand contract negotiations are long, complicated processes that take time.
But, if Stamkos does re-sign, the moment he does it's all over and all forgiven. If it takes another six months, so be it. This is the game's best goal-scorer we're talking about.
So give it more time.