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Ivey: Stamkos looks set for homecoming

| Thursday, February 11, 2016

Yesterday, the Toronto Maple Leafs traded captain Dion Phaneuf to the Ottawa Senators in a nine-player trade that included a 2017 second-round draft pick going back to Toronto.

As Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello said after the trade, “This was a transaction that certainly wasn’t for today.”

That’s because most of the players the Maple Leafs acquired in the trade are young prospects who are expected to play in the minor leagues for the time being. So why make the trade?

Well one reason is to clear up salary. The Maple Leafs didn’t retain any of Phaneuf’s $7 million annual salary cap hit that will run through the 2020-21 season. Another reason is to gain prospects who could help the Leafs win in the future. The Leafs currently have the second-worst record in the league and it is common practice for struggling teams in any sport to give up valuable assets in exchange for prospects.

But potentially the biggest reason for the trade is Steven Stamkos.

Stamkos, a four-time NHL All-Star and considered one of the best players in the league, is in the final year of his five-year, $37.5 million contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning and hasn’t been re-signed to a contract extension yet. If the Lightning don’t re-sign him by July 1, when NHL free agency starts, he will become an unrestricted free agent. It has long been rumored that Stamkos, a Markham, Ontario, native, will sign as a free agent with the Maple Leafs and play in his hometown, similar to what Lebron James did a couple of years ago by leaving the Miami Heat to rejoin his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers and the current rumor that Oklahoma City Thunder player Kevin Durant will sign a free agent contract with his hometown Washington Wizards this summer.

With each passing day Stamkos isn’t re-signed, it looks more and more likely that he will become an unrestricted free agent this summer. It is unusual that a player of Stamkos’ caliber hasn’t signed a contract extension this late in the final year of his current contract.

There are also reports that contract talks between Stamkos and the Lightning haven’t gotten anywhere. Stamkos reportedly wants a maximum contract with an annual salary near the $10-12 million range. The cap-strapped Lightning are not in a position to give Stamkos that type of contract, as they also have to re-sign key players like Alex Killorn and Nikita Kucherov. With the moves the Maple Leafs have been making within the past year, it’s looking more and more likely they will be the team to sign him.

Within the past year, the Maple Leafs have traded away their two best players, defenseman Phaneuf and forward Phil Kessel, in deals where the Maple Leafs got mostly prospects in return. Those trades have cleared up a lot of cap space for the Maple Leafs — Toronto, recently rated by Forbes as the most valuable NHL franchise, could easily give Stamkos the large contract he’s looking for. Also, Toronto’s low finishes the past couple of years have allowed them to pick high in the annual NHL draft, and they have selected highly-touted prospects William Nylander and Mitch Marner with those selections. They are expected to pick high again this year in a draft that includes players like Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Jesse Puljujarvi and Matthew Tkachuk. Last May, the Maple Leafs hired Mike Babcock to be their new head coach. Babcock won a Stanley Cup coaching the Detroit Red Wings in 2008, and is considered one of the best coaches in the league.

All of those reasons and more make the Maple Leafs an attractive enough destination for Stamkos to sign there, and with every passing day, that possibility is looking more and more realistic.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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