Steven Stamkos (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
Steven Stamkos made his first visit of the season to his hometown of Toronto Tuesday night and while he didn't register any points, he did manage to generate a lot of buzz in a city that is starving for a star.
If the stars align and Steven Stamkos does end up with the Toronto Maple Leafs next season, he’s going to need every penny of his enormous salary just to cover tickets for family and friends. Those things don’t come cheaply, in case you haven’t heard, and there’s likely to be a hike in ticket prices if Stamkos does ride in to save the franchise.
To say that Stamkos had an enormous entourage when the Lightning visited the Maple Leafs Tuesday night would be a huge understatement. Just from Newport Sports alone, which represents Stamkos in the completely non-existent talks that are going on with the Lightning on a new deal were his primary agent Don Meehan, as well as Newport agents Pat Morris, Mark Guy, Wade Arnott, Rand Simon, Josh Epstein and Sarah Stamkos, who works in Newport’s marketing department. (Sara Stamkos’ boyfriend was also there.) Of course, Stamkos’s parents Chris and Lesley, along with his skill coach Jari Byrski and Byrski’s girlfriend.
That’s a total of 12 people for those of you keeping score at home. All of them live in Toronto, including his parents, who did not move to Tampa contrary to rumors. Whether Stamkos takes up residence alongside them in the summer of 2016 is completely undecided. But every day that passes without any indication Stamkos will be back with the Lightning will add another log to the blazing inferno that represents the hopes and dreams of Maple Leaf fans.
(Personal prediction, not based on anything more than instinct: Stamkos will play for neither the Lightning nor the Leafs next season. If he goes to unrestricted free agency, there are too many other teams that can offer him the combination of money, term and the chance to win than the Leafs can.)
The Lightning caught a break from the schedule maker, who had them playing in Columbus Monday night, meaning they could get away with not showing up to the rink for the morning skate. The next time the Lightning are in Toronto is Feb. 29, which just happens to be trade deadline day, which makes you think that Steve Hatze Petros, who is the league’s senior vice-president of scheduling, has one heck of a sense of humor.
For the two days leading up to the game, the Center of the Hockey Universe™ was consumed by talk about Stamkos and whether or not he’ll end up in Toronto. The Lightning and Stamkos have insisted all year long that this is not a distraction, but the team is still outside the playoffs and Stamkos is on pace for 28 goals and 56 points, which would be by a wide margin his worst full season since his rookie year. As a point of reference, Stamkos had 29 goals and 57 points in 2012-13, a season that was truncated to 48 games because of a lockout.
When asked how weird Tuesday felt for him, Stamkos handled it with his usual aplomb. “It didn’t feel that weird,” he said. “Did it feel weird for you guys? I don’t think there was any difference once the puck dropped. I always like coming to see friends and family, so it was exciting that way. But to be honest, it really felt like any other game.”
Stamkos played a total of 21:40, which was second among forwards on the team to Nikita Kucherov and while he did not record a point, he provided an effective screen for Anton Stralman on his goal late in the second period. In all, though, it was not a great night for Stamkos. He won just two of 14 faceoffs, registered only one shot and was on the ice for every even-strength goal Toronto scored in the game.
“I’m trying to focus on my game,” Stamkos said, “which hasn’t been that great lately.”
According to Lightning coach Jon Cooper, the effort has been there from Stamkos. “I ache for the kid,” Cooper said. “He hasn’t been scoring in a few games and pucks haven’t been going in for him. He’s used to scoring at a high rate, but a good sign is were 8-4 in our last 12 games and that’s without him scoring.”
Which begs the question, is it worth it to the Lightning to give Stamkos an eight-year deal north of $10 million, particularly when the likes of Kucherov, Vladislav Namestnikov, Alex Killorn and J.T. Brown will be joining Stamkos as free agents, albeit restricted ones, this summer? And in the summer of 2017, the Lightning are faced with the possibility of Victor Hedman and Ben Bishop becoming free agents.
It’s interesting to note that among all the people who were in Toronto Tuesday night, the man who holds the key to that question was nowhere to be seen, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman.