Leave it to a promotional ball hockey event in late July to stir up one of the hottest discussions in hockey right now. If that isn't a true sign of it being the offseason, I don't know what is.
Steven Stamkos' appearance at said event, held in Toronto, afforded media in attendance the opportunity to ask him about another hot topic in sports: LeBron James returning home to Cleveland. It's relevant because in two years, Stamkos may have the chance to do the same, in a relative sense.
The Markham, Ontario native, like a lot of good Canadian boys, will be asked about the opportunity to go home anytime the term on their contract starts getting closer to its end. It's not unfair to ask, even with it two years in the distance. Especially not now in an NHL that has given more power than ever before to the players to dictate where they play thanks to parity in the salary cap.
In this age of social media where everything means something even if it means nothing, when Stamkos' verified twitter account favorited a tweet linking to a story asking if Toronto could have its own LeBron signing, it set off alarm bells. That also made the questions he was asked Wednesday in Toronto especially pertinent. Stamkos may not have even been the one clicking the little star from his account, but it was enough to cause a small uproar.
A player like Stamkos, one of the two most gifted goal scorers in the last decade (Alex Ovechkin being the other), is going to generate a lot of buzz no matter what. He has two years remaining on a five-year, $37.5 million contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning, the team that selected him first overall in 2008.
“We'll see what happens. It's a couple years away," Stamkos said at the ball hockey event Wednesday in an interview with the Canadian Press about a possible homecoming in Toronto. "Right now I'm focused on what I have to do to win in Tampa, and I think we've really established ourselves as a team that can compete in upcoming years.”
The roster Steve Yzerman has built for the 2014-15 season and beyond has the looks of a legitimate contender, with Stamkos at the center of it all. As early as July 1 of next summer, the club can begin negotiating a long-term extension for Stamkos to avoid what would be any organization's great fear.
Stamkos would likely be able to get max term, max money on his next contract. And any team that feels they have a shot at him would probably move heaven and earth to get him, including his own Lightning.
Stamkos will be 26 years old and will have expanded on his 233 career goals by possibly 100 or more if he stays healthy.
Without Stamkos as part of the team's long-term future, the Lightning don't have much to stand on in terms of contention. As good as the team is around him, Stamkos is a generational talent that would leave a hole that can't be filled adequately.
Perhaps that's why the Lightning's communications arm went on the offensive Thursday after Stamkos' Toronto-related comments made their way to the public sphere on Wednesday. They made sure the aspects about how happy he is to be in Tampa were reiterated to a fan base that can certainly feel the twinges of nervousness.
So what happens if Stamkos wins in Tampa in the next two years? That can change things. If the Lightning go through next summer without a deal for Stamkos, then the nerves may set in.
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Stamkos added that he loves playing in good hockey markets, including Toronto.
"I'm from around here and grew up cheering for the Leafs, so any time I get a chance to come back here I enjoy it, and any time I get a chance to play against the Leafs it's fun," he said. "It's also fun beating them, too, because a lot of my friends are still Leaf fans."
The temptation is going to be there, even though Stamkos said he kind of likes the relative anonymity he enjoys in Tampa and his ability to get away from things for a while.
If he ever returned home, Stamkos would be the center of attention, lauded as a local kid making good and coming to lead his boyhood team to the promised land. That would possibly be front page news for a month (or longer) in Toronto.
Unrestricted free agency in the NHL is always going to be about the money first, but lately, players have looked more for fit than the biggest payday they can find. In a lot of cases, they will still get paid, but it's the ability to keep options open in free agency that has to be tempting for players.
Should the Lightning go through next summer without a long-term contract extension with Stamkos, it would get harder and harder to sign him as the flexibility of having a multitude of options gets ever nearer.
Tampa has to look no further than their own roster for next season to see a player on a much, much smaller scale making a decision that was less money related.
Brian Boyle said he turned down more money from other teams in order to go to Tampa, closer to his wife's hometown of Orlando and where he felt he'd be able to play a bigger role. He also could be reunited with teammate and friend Ryan Callahan. That's only a small example, but stars have been going back home lately, too.
Thomas Vanek, a native of Austria, had an unofficial homecoming signing this summer. The former University of Minnesota star makes his home in the Twin Cities area. It had long been assumed he would one day join the Wild to bring his wife closer to her home and become a full-time Minnesotan instead of an offseason one. That did end up happening this summer at a reasonable price for the Wild, which may have received a true “hometown” discount.
Vanek got a shorter-term, lower money deal at three years and an annual average of $6.5 million to join the Wild. It's still a big contract, but he could have done a lot better as the top UFA forward available.
He joined Zach Parise, who was able to get the money and a homecoming in Minnesota two seasons ago. Since Parise joined the Wild, the team's fortunes have changed quite a bit. He even brought along Wisconsin native Ryan Suter for the ride in a LeBron-Bosh-Wade type scenario. That duo came at a high price with a combined annual cap hit of $15 million.
Last summer, there was a homecoming in Toronto as well. David Clarkson was one of the big free agent signings last season. He reportedly turned down more money from the Edmonton Oilers to play for the team he idolized as a child.
The Mimico, Ontario native, returned home to the tune of $36.75 million over seven years. The signing was celebrated (though not by everyone), and Clarkson was heralded as the second coming of Maple Leafs favorite Wendel Clark.
The first season was an unmitigated disaster, though. Clarkson had a paltry five goals and 11 points in 60 games. It's an albatross of a contract and now Clarkson is more villain than local hero. It could take years to fix that perception, if it ever happens at all.
A signing of a local boy that scores a lot of goals probably would make the people of Toronto forget about that deal, though. But Clarkson will still have four years left on his contract assuming the Leafs don't find a way to make it disappear, by the time Stamkos would be eligible to be a free agent.
The pressure on a Canadian going home to help the team he cheered for as a kid would be a lot to bear. Stamkos would seem to have the ability to do that, but the question if he's available in two years is will the Leafs give him a better option to win that championship he mentioned he wants so badly?
That's the other thing about these free agent homecomings. In most cases, the players were going not just because they had a chance to go home. They were signing because they were still going to have a chance to win.
In the case of Parise and Suter, they were going to Minnesota to make them a contender. They didn't necessarily have one in place at the time of their arrival. But now they have something with Vanek and other outside additions like Jason Pominville, Nino Niederreiter and a host of promising drafted talent.
Stamkos is a fortunes-changing player for pretty much any franchise, too. He'd help any team get better. It took a few years in Tampa Bay, but Stamkos' arrival signaled a changing of the guard. As he racked up goals, it allowed the franchise to move on from club legends Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis. Now they're as well positioned for a Stanley Cup run as they have been since winning it all in 2004.
He'd still need a supporting cast on any other destination to have a real shot at the Stanley Cup, obviously. So that could dictate a lot of what happens.
There is something special happening in Tampa, though. This is a franchise that has drafted well and has made some big splashes in free agency. They're set up for competitiveness for longer than just the next two years.
The other thing about homecomings is that franchise stars tend to build their lives where they make their money. By the time his contract expires, Stamkos will have put in eight years with the Lightning. That will account for a third of his lifetime. The thing that should concern daydreaming Maple Leafs fans is this: What if Stamkos is already home?