Stamkos, Leafs not meant to be
Mike Zeisberger, QMI Agency
|Steven Stamkos, who scored his 49th and 50th goals of the season Tuesday night against Boston, leads his Tampa Bay Lightning against the Leafs Thursday in Florida. (GETTY IMAGES)
TAMPA - On the night Markham’s Steven Stamkos further entrenched his status as a bona fide NHL superstar at the tender young age of 22, a banner in the lower deck of the Tampa Bay Times Forum proved to be a real sign of the times.
“I drove from Ontario to see Stamkos score 50,” it blared.
Good decision by the author, wasn’t it?
Had he wanted to, the owner of that placard could have motored his way down from Canada to the east coast of Florida to see Ontario’s whipping boys, the Maple Leafs, fumble and bumble their way to a 5-2 loss to the Florida Panthers in Sunrise on Tuesday night, dropping their record in the past 17 games to a mediocre 2-13-2.
Instead, the choice of going to Tampa paid off handsomely for The Sign Man as Stamkos scored twice in a 6-1 thrashing of the Boston Bruins, reaching the 50-goal plateau for the second time in his infant career.
This is the same Steven Stamkos who grew up north of Toronto idolizing the Leafs.
The same Steven Stamkos whose father, Chris, regularly played softball with Joe Bowen, the long-time Maple Leafs play-by-play man.
The same Steven Stamkos who remains close friends with Bowen’s sons to this day.
Now, as he gets ready to face off against the team he once idolized, Steven Stamkos can play a major role in shoving the Maple Leafs one step closer to the dubious distinction of missing the playoffs for a seventh consecutive season. The Panthers are the only other NHL team that has not qualified for the post-season since the ugly 2004-05 lockout, but they are on the verge of getting into this year’s Stanley Cup dance, a scenario that would leave the Leafs as the lone team not to accomplish it in that span.
In an ironic twist, general manager Brian Burke, who correctly is feeling the wrath of a loyal Maple Leafs fan base, was right on the mark this week when he angrily rejected any notion that his team would purposely tank down the stretch once his team was mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. As much as Leafs Nation would love to get a shot at projected No. 1 overall pick Nail Yakupov of Sarnia, pros don’t quit. Not on purpose anyway.
At the same time, taking the high road four years ago was the very reason the Leafs lost their opportunity at a shot to draft Stamkos.
With the Leafs mired among the bottom feeders during the 2007 Christmas holidays, there was optimism harboured by both Stamkos and the Leafs’ rabid followers that a marriage between player and team might be possible. But a modest winning streak that started in late January and featured victories over Detroit, Ottawa and Montreal would help the Leafs move up in the Eastern Conference, thereby flushing away a shot at drafting Stamkos.
During an interview with yours truly on Feb, 10, 2008, Stamkos, who already had racked up 80 points in 46 games with the OHL’s Sarnia Sting at the time, left little doubt where he wanted to end up.
“To be a Leaf would be a dream come true,” Stamkos told the Toronto Sun that day. “I idolized the Leafs growing up. I’ve always been a Leafs fan.
“I’m not going to lie to you. I’ve checked out the NHL standings. I pay attention to where the Leafs sit. I know they’re near the bottom of the standings. The chance of (getting picked by them) definitely is in the back of my mind.”
Because the Leafs refused to wave the white flag — and rightly so — they ended up with the fifth pick, not No. 1. In the end, Luke Schenn became a Leaf. Steven Stamkos did not.
Give Joe Bowen credit. He did everything in his power to get Stamkos into blue and white.
“Mr. Bowen told me not to go up on stage when my name is called until it’s the Leafs turn to pick,” Stamkos joked prior to the draft.
The rest is history.
Steven Stamkos is happy in Tampa and is a two-time 50-plus goal scorer.
The Leafs have not made the playoffs in six consecutive seasons ... and counting.
Doing the right thing stings sometimes, doesn’t it.