With so much happening in the hockey world this week, the only way to cover much of it is with a multi bullet-point column. Here are a few stories that piqued my interest:
• A published report speculated Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment head executive Tim Lieweke has his eye on bringing Steven Stamkos into the Maple Leafs fold when the Lightning superstar becomes an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2016. While anything can happen – and Lieweke’s recent success transforming Toronto’s moribund soccer team is a demonstration of his power with ownership – I still think it’s the longest of shots for Stamkos to leave Tampa Bay for hockey’s most suffocating fishbowl.
Don’t get me wrong – for the sake of Leafs fans, I hope Stamkos does decide he wants to play in his home market the same way Zach Parise did when he left New Jersey for Minnesota. But put yourself in his position: you can work and live in beautiful Florida, tax-free, for a Bolts team headed up by one of the game’s all-time great leaders (GM Steve Yzerman). Or you can leave and deal with incredible pressure, the ghost of 1967 and a media horde that makes the charging zombie masses in World War Z look like Christmas carolers. You can see why most Ontario kids go to places like Florida, or North Carolina (Jordan Staal), or even Manhattan (Rick Nash).
As well, does anyone think Stamkos is even going to get to shouting distance of free agency? If Yzerman doesn’t have his name on a contract extension at the first opportunity, it will be a major news story in Tampa and in Canada. And every day that draws closer to July of 2016 that he remains unsigned will fan the flames of that controversy. Expect a decision on his future to come long before that. And I can’t envision many circumstances under which Yzerman deals him to Toronto. The only way it will happen is if Stamkos demands it.
Is that possible? Sure. But it would run counter to the manner in which every Toronto-area star has approached playing there in their prime. Eric Lindros showed up in Blue & White at the end of his career. Wayne Gretzky wanted to be a Leaf at the end, but ownership wouldn’t let him. So I’m going to refuse to believe it can happen with Stamkos until the improbable proves otherwise.
• Speaking of Gretzky: now that he’s been repaid money owed to him from his time with the Coyotes, The Great One has been expected to return to the NHL in some working capacity. Last summer, there were whispers he was in line for the then-vacant New York Rangers coaching job and his fellow legendary Oiler/Ranger Mark Messier would join him as Blueshirts GM once 70-year-old Glen Sather retires. That didn’t happen on either front, and Messier wound up departing the Rangers organization for a consulting job with Edmonton.
However, is it possible Gretzky gets hired as Rangers GM instead? We all know how franchise owner James Dolan loves putting former-star athletes in charge of his Madison Square Garden empire’s teams and Gretzky fits that bill perfectly. His presence in the world’s biggest media market undoubtedly would be welcomed by league brass as well. Gretzky doesn’t have NHL GM experience per se, but was director of hockey operations for the Coyotes and famously constructed Canada’s 2002 Olympic gold-medal-winning team. The Rangers also represent something Gretzky never had in Phoenix: an unlimited ownership checkbook allowing him to be as creative and aggressive as he wishes.
There’s nothing to suggest Gretzky will soon join the Rangers. But for a lot of reasons, this is a much better fit for him than just about any other NHL destination.
• Finally, the Edmonton Oilers’ goalie trades are barely 24 hours old, but already some are looking beyond newly-acquired Ben Scrivens and focusing on the off-season for potential long-term solutions. I’ve heard names like Cam Ward and Jonas Hiller tossed out, but if the goaltender market has taught us anything in recent years, it’s that it can change very quickly. Between injuries, AHL call-ups, contractual concerns, amnesty buyouts and playoff surprises both positive and negative, the netminding picture for at least one-third of the NHL could be drastically different six months from now
You can start photoshopping Ward’s head onto an Oilers jersey if that makes you happy. Just don’t stitch his name on the back of a real Oilers jersey just yet. Odds are you’ll be disappointed.