A leisurely summer weekend took a bit of a turn for me early Saturday afternoon when the Twitter account of Lightning captain Steven Stamkos favorited a tweet from THN’s account linking to my story on the idea of a Toronto-born superstar – you know, like a Steven Stamkos – joining the Leafs in the prime of his career, the way NBA icon LeBron James did last week when he returned to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers.
For the most part, there were two types of reactions: utter joy from Leafs fans who saw Stamkos’ act as a guarantee he was destined for Toronto; and utter rage from those who went after the messenger instead of acknowledging the fact Stamkos made this story an issue by favoriting the tweet. Both of those reactions were entirely expected; Leafs supporters are famous for believing every player is interested in playing for their team, and there’s never any shortage of true-believer fans in every market who refuse to consider a star player would want out of their city.
(Of course, that second group of people clearly didn’t read the original column, or they would’ve noticed the part where I wrote, “I’m not saying it’s likely either star ever gets to the point where playing for the Leafs becomes a possibility...”. But hey, basic reading comprehension skills aren't everybody’s strong point. It won’t be the first time my words were misconstrued by rage-a-holics and the pathetically bitter, and it won’t be the last.)
That said, after speaking to more NHL sources since that article was written, I think there’s a better chance of Stamkos coming to the Leafs than I did when I wrote it.
Why? A few reasons.
Before Stamkos favorited the Tweet (and almost immediately after the original column was posted), I heard from a source well connected to Tampa Bay and Stamkos. That source said he really believed there was a chance he could sign with the Leafs when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2016 – but that Toronto would have to give Stamkos a maximum-value contract (i.e. 20 percent of the salary cap) to get it done. The same source believed a big-time push for Stamkos is exactly the type of marquee move Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment head honcho Tim Lieweke loves to make. In addition, I spoke with a number of people in the industry who explained Stamkos-to-Toronto rumors have been floating around the league for at least a couple years, and that his desire to play for the Leafs isn’t at all a negative commentary on what he thinks about the direction of the Bolts franchise, but instead spoke to his deep love for his hometown.
Adding more fuel to the fire was Stamkos’ decision yesterday to favorite a tweet asking him to team with Isles star and fellow Toronto native John Tavares and join the Leafs. That shut up all the insular ninnies who swore Stamkos must’ve accidentally favorited the THN tweet, and muddied the waters even more. Stamkos un-favorited both tweets, but the damage has been done, and now speculation as to his future in Tampa Bay only will increase until he either signs an extension or moves on. If Stamkos is having fun on social media, someone should tell him there are ramifications for every favorite or retweet. (THN spoke briefly to Stamkos' agent Mark Guy Monday afternoon, but Guy hadn't made contact with his client and was unable to comment on the particulars of his social media choices.)
Let me stress again: I don’t expect Stamkos to become a Leaf anytime soon. I think he's an endlessly decent young man who isn’t about to make a stink or engineer his way out of Tampa Bay this season. If I had to bet, I’d bet he’ll either happily finish out the last two years of his contract with the Lightning – or, if he doesn't sign an extension when he's allowed to next summer, Bolts GM Steve Yzerman will trade him. A lot can happen between now and 2016, and star players who are linked to Toronto in their prime should always be considered long shots to actually do so.
However, the more I dig, the more I think this situation is different. And I think people in Tampa Bay or anywhere else who reflexively sneer at the idea Stamkos would leave for Toronto are leaning on a narrative that may very well turn out to be false. It might console them to hang hard to the notion that Stamkos as a Leaf is impossible, but I'm not in the business of consoling.
Like it or not, people within the hockey world have for some time been open to the possibility Stamkos could choose to be a Leaf. And for the average fan not to be open to that possibility says more about them – and the short leash with which they’ve restrained their minds – than it does about the reality of the situation.