The Toronto Maple Leafs have now missed the playoffs in six straight seasons, seven if you count the lockout. For any franchise, let alone the NHL's flagship and the Mecca of hockey, this is absolutely unacceptable, disgraceful even. I cannot blame Brian Burke for this entirely as he inherited a complete mess from John Ferguson Jr. That being said, his first major move as general manager was to trade away two first round picks and a second rounder for Phil Kessel. I have defended this trade tirelessly since he made it, and as the days go by and the Leafs still lack a "true" number one centre to play with the aforementioned Phil Kessel, it's becoming tougher and tougher to defend.
I will start by saying that I commend Brian Burke for signing Tim Connolly after a valiant attempt to sign the prize of the 2011 UFA class, Brad Richards. Some will criticize the signing of Connolly as overpayment. However, given that Connolly was clearly the next best option at centre after Richards, I say that inking Connolly for only two years was a smart move, regardless if the dollar amount may "seem" a bit high. Injuries aside, and they are about as easy to push aside with Connolly as an infant pushing aside a bus, he is a smart, quick, skilled pass-first centre that can provide Phil Kessel with the setup man he needs to move toward 40-plus goals this season. He also plays a solid point on the powerplay and is a very good penalty killer, all of which the Leafs desperately needed to address.
Burke then went out yesterday and proceeded to commit grand larceny on the Nashville Predators when he traded away a defenceman who was destined to spend the season in the AHL along with a low-end prospect for Cody Franson, a bonafide top 4 defenceman who is big, gifted offensively and young with excellent upside. Interestingly, the other peice acquired by Burke in this deal was the severely concussed Matthew Lombardi, who prior to his nasty head injury in the second game of the 2010-2011 season, was pencilled in to be Nashville's number one centre. IF Lombardi can come back this season, the Leafs, while still lacking a true number one centre, will be very deep down the middle. Connolly, Grabovski, Lombardi, Bozak, Kadri and Colborne is a nice stable of centres. The issue is, none of these guys are number one centres (not yet anyways in the cases of Kadri and Colborne) and if this team truly has Stanely Cup aspirations they will need to address this hole.
That brings me to Steven Stamkos. Now before you Leaf-haters roll your eyes, bear with me for a minute. A year ago, or even a few months ago, it would have seemed ridiculous to speculate that Stamkos would not be a Tampa Bay Lightning for years to come. However, the current contract stalemate has raised questions as to whether the Bolts can and would be willing to pay Stamkos what he is worth. It has been suggested that since Stamkos clearly loves playing in Tampa and has a bond with Marty St. Louis, that he would take a discount to stay with the Ligthing. However, given the way the market has become inflated recently, why would Stamkos sign for $7.5 million per year, when James Wisniewski signed for $5.5 million per? Stamkos is worth twice as much as Wisniewski (with all due respect to Wiz) and yet he should take $7.5 million to stay in Tampa? Remember, this is an organization with a history of unstable ownership, and their current owner Jeff Vinik has said he will not spend to the cap.
And this all leads me to the Toronto Maple Leafs. No team in the NHL needs Stamkos more than the Leafs, and given that Stamkos is from Toronto and grew up a Leafs fan, and given that he spends his summers in Toronto training at Gary Roberts' gym, it makes perfect sense that the Leafs should pursue him. Some will argue that giving up 4 first round picks would be a mistake. I will argue that Stamkos is worth 8 first round picks, as none of them would equate to anything close to Stamkos given that adding him to the lineup along with the stable defense and adequate group of surrounding forwards would put the Leafs into the top half of the league. The fact of the matter is, that if Stamkos and the Lightning fail to come to an agreement, Steve Yzerman will not accept 4 first round picks for one of the top stars in the NHL. Rather, he will send Stamkos to the highest bidder, and the Leafs would likely have to give up a package along the lines of Luke Schenn, one of Nazem Kadri or Joe Colborne, and a couple of first round picks.
You can argue whether that is a smart move by the Leafs, but I will say that as great as Schenn is and as great as Kadri or Colborne may become, players like Stamkos don't come around very often, and they NEVER come around if you are the Toronto Maple Leafs. Brian Burke owes it to the fans and the city to make a hard run at Stamkos. The Leafs have never had a true superstar, yet as the most loyal fans in hockey, we deserve one more than any other fanbase. Furthermore, the Leafs have failed to add a true franchise player since Mats Sundin left and Stamkos would be a rock star in this hockey mad city. An all-out effort is required and expected by me, IF he is indeed available or if he comes available in the near future. Imagine a lineup that looked something like this:
Reserves: Colborne, Lombardi
I know this would leave us with some tiny holes, and I would hate to lose Schenn. But again, to get Stamkos you give up Schenn and feel good about it. Tell me you wouldn't be just a wee bit giddy about being a Leaf fan, and when was the last time you could truly say that?