Stamkos Decision Not A Slam Dunk for Leafs

By @CorsiHL

There probably won’t be a day between now and July 1st where you don’t see the words “Stamkos” and “Leafs” penned beside each other somewhere on the Internet. That is, of course, unless Steven Stamkos decides to forgo unrestricted free agency and re-up in Tampa Bay. But that scenario seems increasingly unlikely with each passing day.

For many fans, signing Stamkos would be a no-brainer. The opportunity to sign an elite centre at age 26 doesn’t present itself very often, and the Leafs’ depth chart has been lacking in that area since Mats Sundin left town eight years ago. Unfortunately, the Leafs don’t operate in a salary cap-free world that coach Mike Babcock longs for, and a long-term commitment to Stamkos would hamper flexibility down the road.

Andrew Kerison (@OrgSixAnalytics) wrote a fantastic piece estimating the AAV of Stamkos’ next contract a few weeks back, where he concluded a fair range would fall between $7.4M and $10.8M. Based on some of the recent contracts given to UFAs-to-be Anze Kopitar, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, I would expect Stamkos’ number to be at the upper end of that range, if not higher.

So – should the Leafs take the plunge?

The YES Argument

Steven Stamkos is an elite goalscorer. In fact, there’s only one NHL player who has scored more goals per game than Stamkos over the past three regular seasons. He’d be a tremendous offensive addition to a Leafs team that struggled mightily to score goals last season and a strong presence in a locker room that will be full of young players. Stamkos is a lock to score 30 goals, a decent bet to score 40 goals and only two years removed from a five-year stretch where he scored at a 50 goal pace.

Digging a little deeper into the numbers, Stamkos has been an exceptional driver of 5v5 goal scoring throughout his career. And even with a slight relative decline in the most recent few seasons, one could argue it would be unrealistic to expect Stamkos to produce at the same level alongside glorified grinder Ryan Callahan [2014-2016] as borderline hall-of-famer Marty St. Louis [2008-2014]

 

stamkosGF

 

From a business perspective, there’s a lot of upside in MLSE opening up their wallet for Stamkos. The media buzz of the Leafs signing a hometown, franchise cornerstone centre in his prime years would be unprecedented. The Leafs – and in turn the league as a whole – would make a lot more money with Stamkos in town, and Rogers’ ailing TV deal would get a much-needed boost after a very turbulent start. There will most certainly be some pressure to accelerate the rebuild from the higher-ups at MLSE.

The NO Argument

In a league where salary cap space is becoming an increasingly valuable resource, there’s tremendous risk in writing Stamkos an eight-figure paycheque for the next seven years. We know that barring some form of miraculous hometown discount, Stamkos has a good shot at setting the league’s new high water mark in terms of AAV. And despite the Canadian dollar’s recent rally, there’s a great deal of uncertainty around the future of the NHL salary cap. Recent salary cap growth has been mirrored by rising escrow, which could reportedly hit 20% by the end of the season. The NHL has already tapped out several of the incremental hockey-related revenue (HRR) drivers from the past decade like outdoor games and the new Rogers TV deal. Whether you like it or not, the salary cap bubble will burst at some point. Most proponents of a Stamkos deal in Toronto will point at the rising cap environment from the past decade, looking at the percentage of the cap his AAV would theoretically occupy both now and in seven years. But the reality is, it would not be prudent to assume that salary cap increases would ease the long-term burden of such a large contract.

While Stamkos’ 5v5 goals for numbers have been strong throughout his career, it’s hard not to notice his suspect overall impact at 5v5 over the past two seasons. Here are some numbers to chew on for Stamkos vs. some comparable centremen around the league in terms of age and AAV (the other three have also been the top line centre on five of the past six Stanley Cup teams):

 

Capture
At age 26, Stamkos is certainly not old by NHL standards, but it’s undeniable that the league has seen a shift towards younger players dominating in recent years. And sure – while he would only be 33 at the expiration of a seven-year contract, his recent string of injuries can’t be overlooked completely. The Leafs will surely do their homework on Stamkos’ recent blood clot scare, but at the very least it adds another dimension of uncertainty. Andrei Vasilevskiy seemed to recover well from a similar ailment earlier this season, while Pascal Dupuis was forced to end his career. Nobody – not even Stamkos himself – can be sure of the long-term impact this injury will have.It’s pretty evident that Stamkos’ production has been at least a tier below the best over the past two seasons, even while playing “easier” 5v5 minutes in terms the quality of his teammates, competition and zone starts.

Conclusion

The one thing we know for certain is that Steven Stamkos is going to earn a lot of money over the next seven to eight years. Rumours have already circulated that Stamkos has expressed a desire to come home to Toronto this summer, but it takes two to tango.

Personally, I’d lean towards avoiding Stamkos this summer if I were the Leafs’ brain trust. His less-than-desirable trajectory in offensive and overall production in recent years is a pretty big red flag, and his most recent health scare is the icing on the cake. And in general, I’m very skeptical of top-heavy cap teams and their long-term ability to win while working around one or two mega-deals.

But hey – if there was a single management group I’d trust to build cap-efficiently around a $10M+ deal, it would be the Leafs’. There probably isn’t a better capologist around the league than Brandon Pridham, nor is there a guy better at…uh…making people go away than Lou Lamoriello. At the end of the day, the final dollar figure on Stamkos’ desired deal will be the deciding factor. We’ve never quite seen a situation where a player of this calibre actually makes it to the free agent market. Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews were recently locked up on mammoth deals by their existing teams to avoid free agency, and we’ll be left to wonder how much that eighth guaranteed season lowered the AAVs on what would otherwise be seven-year deals on the open market.

It will be a fun two months of speculation, and we’ll see if the Leafs will become the second Toronto team this year to make the right decision on a premier, high-priced free agent.

[All data via stats.hockeyanalysis, war-on-ice, and hockey-reference]

Editor’s Note: We are happy to have CorsiHL contribute to the Bloggers’ Tribune on a regular basis. And unapologetic Maple Leafs fan, he’ll bring a perspective that we can relate to. Please give him a follow on Twitter at @CorsiHL

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4 Comments

  1. The rumored reason Stamkos is going to free agency is the way Cooper has used him the last two years. I think the Leafs should sign him if he is available. If his develops a career ending condition then he would go on long term disability. Adding Stamkos and Laine or Matthews would make a huge difference to the Leafs.

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  2. Stamkos could earn 10 + million per year through endorsements while playing for the Leafs. Sign him for 7-7.5 million per year and that makes his contract palatable and that way he doesn’t have the negative cap implications everyone is worried about. A steal for the Leafs and way more money than he can make through hockey alone. It all depends on his priorities. Does he want to be the games highest paid player or become this generations Maple Leaf icon.
    That’s the way to bring home the cup.
    At 10M + it isn’t worth it….

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    1. I’d have no issues at something in the $7-$8M range. But another team would probably go way higher than that. It would be tough to quantify the “incremental” endorsement $$ he’d make in Toronto vs elsewhere. But I’m sure that’s all part of the decision-making process for him and his agent

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  3. They should sign a couple good veteran UFA’s this summer for 3 yr contracts. Get some leadership and experience, but keep their Cap flexible so that when this team is peaking in 3 yrs from now they can make a win-now acquisition to seal the deal and go for the cup. The leafs have a stockpile of draft picks for the next 3 years. If players like Matthews, Vesey 😉 , Nylander, etc., pan out well, they can always accelerate back to win-now in 1-2 years by unloading some of these draft picks to get whatever missing talent they lack. The team just doesn’t need Stamkos right now, nor do they need a 30-33 yr old Stamkos stuck on the Cap for $10M limiting our moves.

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