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Can the Maple Leafs afford a superstar’s supersized contract?

The show is over. The favoured son came, made headlines, played 21 minutes, went pointless, said little and went on to the next stop on the Tampa Bay Lightning road trip.

But the Steven Stamkos-to-Toronto talk is far from over.

The talk radio/social media debate over making Stamkos a Maple Leaf, if he gets to free agency on July 1, has been a fascinating one the past week.

Mike Babcock aims to get Leafs to ‘rightful place’ in NHL (CP Video)

On one side are the “do it all costs” types, those who want Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment to hand over a blank cheque to Stamkos’s agent, Don Meehan, and say, “Welcome aboard!”

The opposing arguments warn about a likely decline in production as Stamkos approaches 30 – he’ll be 26 in February – and the impact of a huge free-agent contract on the Leafs’ salary cap.

NHL revenue is not projecting well. It went up approximately 5 per cent last season year over year, but the Canadian dollar’s drop in value will have a much bigger impact after a full season played under the 80-cent mark. (The loonie closed at 72.55 cents U.S. on Wednesday, which is a decline of 23 per cent since July, 2014.)

Flat revenue will mean a smaller increase to the NHL’s 2016-17 cap, with the upper estimate set at $74.5-million (all figures U.S.) by the league at last week’s board of governors’ meetings.

That’s not great news for teams like the Leafs, who can afford to spend to the upper limit but also have a lot of bad contracts on their books past this season.

Does that leave room for Stamkos, who will command at least $10-million annually on a long-term deal?

Let us ponder the mess that Brendan Shanahan and company have to work with.

The Leafs have only nine NHL players under contract for next season. If you add in the combined $2.5-million in dead money for Tim Gleason’s buyout and the 15 per cent of Phil Kessel’s contract they retained in the trade with Pittsburgh, Toronto has committed almost $40-million to nine other players.

That group includes Dion Phaneuf and his $7-million-a-season deal, Joffrey Lupul ($5.25-million) and Jonathan Bernier ($4.15-million).

Ouch.

That leaves the Leafs with $36-million to spend on 13 or 14 more players – provided they place Nathan Horton and Stéphane Robidas on injured reserve for all of next year.

It’s a considerable amount of money, but a big chunk of it will go to the team’s young restricted free agents who need new contracts. Morgan Rielly, in particular, will not be cheap if he continues to play first-pairing minutes and produces at a 40-points-a-season pace.

Add those six or seven contracts in, and the Leafs are looking at $22-million in cap space with one-third of a roster to fill.

Several spots will go to young players. William Nylander and Mitch Marner appear ready to play for the Leafs next season, and they’ll do so on cheap entry-level deals that will help Toronto’s cap situation immensely.

But if the Leafs add someone like Stamkos for an annual hit of $11-million or more, they will seriously limit their ability to add salary elsewhere. Even with Stamkos, Nylander and Marner in the lineup, Shanahan will likely need two more decent forwards, a top-six defenceman and, potentially, a starter in goal.

All for about $8-million.

The Leafs’ cap situation isn’t dire. They have room for Stamkos (or another superstar salary). But that dead money (Gleason and Kessel), bad money (Phaneuf, Lupul and Bernier) and new money (Rielly, Nazem Kadri and Peter Holland) adds up.

And the result isn’t a great team.

In the best-case scenario, the Leafs can find a taker for some of their players with bad deals. Even moving one of those three players – or Tyler Bozak – creates far more breathing room to bring in Stamkos, which improves the rest of the lineup.

Getting more help from the Toronto Marlies would be a big bonus, and there are signs that players such as Josh Leivo, Brendan Leipsic or Scott Harrington may be ready to contribute.

But one of the real keys to winning the Stanley Cup under the NHL’s current salary system is getting a degree of efficiency in your lineup. The Chicago Blackhawks have won three Cups in the past six years in part because they had Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith on bargain contracts, few terrible deals elsewhere and enough cap space left over to surround them with quality depth.

So even if the Leafs do get Stamkos, they’ve still got multiple anchors to throw overboard before they can get seriously competitive.

In this situation, unloading their junk is likely just as vital as landing the big fish.

And it’s more difficult, given the cap logjam around the league.

Source: James Mirtle Column
Can the Maple Leafs afford a superstar’s supersized contract?

Bernier struggles in return as Maple Leafs fall to Lightning

Attention NHL schedule-makers: Mike Babcock is no fan of your six-day
breaks.

We know this because the Toronto Maple Leafs coach let us know several dozen
times over the past six days.

“We’ve been off I don’t even know how long – it seems like three months,”
Babcock grumbled before the Maple Leafs’ long-awaited meeting with the Tampa Bay
Lightning and still-captain Steven Stamkos. “So the first 10 minutes are big for
us.”

Well, the first 10 minutes weren’t great. The rest of the game?

It went from bad to good to then much worse.

The Leafs blew a 3-1 lead in an ugly 5-4 overtime loss to the Lightning on
Tuesday night, undermining what looked at the midway point to be one of their
stronger outings in a while.

Once again, netminder Jonathan Bernier was at the centre of the
implosion.

In his first start back with the Leafs after four games (three shutouts and
one ugly one) in the American Hockey League on a conditioning stint, Bernier was
beaten five times on only 27 shots.

Tampa’s second shot of the game – a breakaway gifted to sniper Nikita
Kucherov, to be fair – made it 1-0 only three minutes in.

But the “oh no here we go again” portion of the night didn’t come until later
– mostly because Bernier had plenty of goal support, something he had lacked all
season in failing to win a single game in 10 appearances (0-8-2).

After Kucherov’s goal, the Leafs offence produced three straight replies,
including two from Babcock’s new “second” line of James van Riemsdyk, Tyler
Bozak and P.A. Parenteau, which has plenty of potential to be dangerous in an
offence-first role.

All three had two points in the first period, including Bozak netting both
his 100th goal and 250th point. Curiously, he now has as many points this season
as former linemate Phil Kessel, in four fewer games – a stat that speaks to the
dysfunction in Pittsburgh these days. But credit to Bozak for a strong start,
too.

But then almost everything the Lightning threw at the Leafs net started going
in. Anton Stralman beat Bernier high late in the second period. Then Mike
Blunden and Jonathan Marchessault – both playing up the lineup for the beaten-up
Lightning – scored weird ones early in the third.

The Leafs did manage to press and rescue a point, scoring an equalizer late
when Dan Winnik directed it in through traffic.

That only held until overtime, when again Bernier allowed a high, hard shot –
this time off the stick of Lightning youngster Vladislav Namestnikov.

It wasn’t a gimme. But it was a fitting end for what wasn’t a great return to
the crease for Bernier.

Babcock’s biggest frustration with the long layoff last week was likely how
it interrupted one of his team’s best stretches all year. Save for a blowout
loss in Winnipeg to start December, the Leafs have been remarkably efficient of
late, with a 8-5-2 record in their last 15 games.

After a brief dip, Toronto also has been a solid possession team – something
that was evident all night against the Lightning. The Leafs led big on the shot
clock after the first period (16-4), and carried the play to the tune of having
nearly 60 per cent of the attempts on goal.

Bozak’s line was a big driver of that, but every Leafs trio – save for the
little-used fourth unit centred by Byron Froese – was in the black.

You could certainly support the argument of rest (Toronto) versus rust
(Tampa), given the Lightning’s hard-fought win in Columbus the night before. But
the Leafs have been on the other end of that equation often this year.

Given this was a battle between a supposed contender – a Tampa team that went
to the final six months ago – and a team expected to bottom out, all in all, the
Leafs played well.

What they didn’t get was that one extra save – and that could mean rookie
Garret Sparks once again gets the call over Bernier when San Jose comes to town
Thursday.

Babcock, after all, isn’t known for his patience.

“We need him to be good and he wants to be good and we want him to be good,”
Babcock said of Bernier. “Now the next part is the execution at our level.”

The Leafs are still waiting.

Source: James Mirtle Column
Bernier struggles in return as Maple Leafs fall to Lightning

Maple Leafs’ new logo, jerseys will help franchise ditch look of failure

The news was a gut punch for some uneasy hockey fans on the weekend.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are getting a new logo? And jersey? How could Brendan Shanahan do this? Team owners Bell and Rogers will screw it up. Another cash grab. Hap Day must be spinning in his grave!

On and on the hand-wringing went.

Mike Babcock aims to get Leafs to ‘rightful place’ in NHL (CP Video)

But this could be a very good thing.

As tends to happen with these sorts of things, sportslogos.net broke the news that the Leafs will be making a change for the franchise’s 100th NHL season next year. The Leafs have declined comment, saying only that they plan on honouring their past in a lot of ways next year – so what exactly this new logo and jersey will look like isn’t known publicly.

Other than a slight colour change, the Leafs haven’t altered their current logo since 1982. The basic maple leaf design with modern typography has been on the front of their jerseys since 1967-68.

Which happens to be the season after Toronto last won a Stanley Cup.

Sportslogos.net reported that the new look will be “a combination of all past team eras plus a nod to the future,” which is vague enough to mean pretty much anything involving a blue leaf.

Incorporating some of that ancient history makes the most sense. The current look has become beloved by a generation of fans in the Greater Toronto Area, but the reality is it’s a logo that remains synonymous with nutty former owner Harold Ballard and a whole lot of bad hockey.

It’s the logo they wore when Darryl Sittler was chased out of town.

It’s the logo they wore through the gruesome 1980s, a decade in which they failed to record a single winning season.

It’s the logo they wore when they traded their first-round pick (who became Scott Niedermayer) for Tom Kurvers; the logo they wore through the last 10 seasons of 18-wheelers going off the cliff in various fashions.

It’s the uniform of Vesa Toskala letting in a goal from the far blueline, of Brett Lebda turnovers, of the David Clarkson contract.

This is a logo the Leafs have carried around the ice for nearly 50 years without winning a Stanley Cup – without even making a Cup finals. They really only gave their fan base hope during two short stretches under former coaches Pat Burns and Pat Quinn.

It’s a look associated with failure – with a franchise that has won only 1,574 of 3,746 games (42 per cent) in 48 seasons – so switching to something else should hardly cause fans to suffer such palpitations.

The Hockey News ran a poll last year asking readers which of the 11 incarnations of the Leafs logo they liked best, and the overwhelming favourite was the classic outlined-and-veined maple leaf that Dave Keon and company wore for only four seasons (and two Cups) in the mid-1960s.

“It’s such an enduring logo despite only being the official one for a handful of seasons,” The Hockey News wrote.

With Mike Babcock as coach and the franchise’s first real rebuild in the modern era producing prospects such as William Nylander and Mitch Marner, there is suddenly significant optimism around the Leafs.

Borrowing a jersey from when the Leafs were a successful, feared and functional organization makes sense – turning over a new leaf by going to an old one.

Source: James Mirtle
Maple Leafs’ new logo, jerseys will help franchise ditch look of failure

Why Steven Stamkos will likely bolt from the Tampa Bay Lightning

All is not well in Tampa Bay these days.

After a dream season a year ago, including a run to within two wins of the Stanley Cup, the Lightning are struggling. They’ve won only 14 of 30 games this season; they sit outside the playoff picture by a few points in an Eastern Conference filled with unremarkable teams.

Injuries have hurt the Triplet Line – perhaps the best trio in the NHL last season – and Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat haven’t been able to produce close to the offence they did in 2014-15.

But that’s not why the entire hockey world will be focused on Tampa when it touches down in Toronto this week.

It’s Steven Stamkos.

There’s a lot of obfuscation in this situation, as neither Stamkos nor the Lightning want his lack of a contract extension to be a distraction as the team continues to struggle on the ice. (Good luck with that.)

But the chatter behind the scenes here isn’t good.

At best, Stamkos simply disagrees with Lightning head coach Jon Cooper about being played on the wing instead of centre, a controversial switch during last year’s playoffs that is being attempted again this season.

At worst? Stamkos and the coach have an active dislike for one another. In fact, some say they rarely talk to one another – and that that’s not a unique situation in Tampa.

Two things happened in the past two weeks to escalate this beyond the point where GM Steve Yzerman can control the optics of what’s really going on.

First, he signed Cooper to a multiyear contract extension, signalling to his captain that if he wants to stay, he’ll have to play for this coach.

A few days later, Stamkos liked a tweet from TSN that had the headline: “Should the Maple Leafs pursue Stamkos?” igniting a firestorm among Greater Toronto Area fans anxious to have one of their favourite sons come play at home.

Stamkos later claimed this was an accident, but no one who knows him – and knows the difficult situation with Cooper – believes it.

This has been brewing for months, and the tough part for Yzerman is Stamkos holds the hammer. He has a full no-movement clause in the final year of his contract, meaning the Lightning may not even be able to deal him as a rental player late in the year.

Stamkos has also had a poor season by his standards: He is on pace for only 30 goals and 60 points, his lowest per-game totals since he was an 18-year-old rookie.

It is widely believed that Yzerman already investigated trading Stamkos before the no-movement clause kicked in. Prior to the draft, the Lightning were in discussions with the Buffalo Sabres about a potential deal for the second-overall pick, which they eventually used to take Jack Eichel.

Depending on who you believe – and we’re dealing with a rumour mill gone absolutely wild right now – those discussions were either very preliminary or somewhat advanced.

Those who argue they were advanced say that it was Stamkos who nixed the deal, because one condition the Sabres put on the blockbuster trade was that they had to be able to sign him to an extension.

Let’s take that talk at face value. It would have made little sense for Stamkos to negotiate a new deal under those circumstances – with only one team to work with – when he was a year away from full unrestricted free agency. If he makes it to July 1, 2016, without a new deal, he will have more than a dozen teams courting him for a record-setting contract that will almost certainly exceed the $10.5-million salary cap hit the Chicago Blackhawks gave to Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews last season.

(It’s worth noting that the Calgary Flames similarly pursued a trade for Stamkos at some point in the summer but that it didn’t get very far.)

There have been denials on much of this all around, and there will continue to be as the focus on the Lightning heats up this week when they face the Leafs.

But it increasingly looks as though the Stamkos UFA sweepstakes will happen this summer.

If he truly doesn’t want to play for Cooper anymore, all he needs to do is wait. That will be a bitter pill for the Lightning – losing a 26-year-old franchise player they drafted first overall in 2008 for nothing – but it won’t catch them by surprise.

If you put any stock in the talk around the league, that’s now the most likely outcome. The only wild card is if Stamkos will allow Yzerman to recoup some sort of asset at the trade deadline by agreeing to be a rental player.

That would have to happen relatively quickly, as the deadline is Feb. 29 – only 78 days away.

It’s either that or broker a reconciliation between player and coach, finally ending a rift that’s been dragging what should be one of the NHL’s better teams down all year.

Either way, Yzerman is running out of time.

Source: James Mirtle
Why Steven Stamkos will likely bolt from the Tampa Bay Lightning