Leafs brace for Stamkos and Lightning

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:10 PM ET

TORONTO - The excited NHL team exec was on his way to watch Steven Stamkos play, sounding on the phone like he had front-row tickets to magician David Copperfield.

He wasn’t affiliated with the Tampa Bay Lightning, just speaking as a fan, but opined as long as weaker clubs find some way to tap into the young stars of the game there would be few worries about failed franchises or lack of league marketing streams in general. The exec noted this was Tampa’s second love affair with a franchise player after Vince Lecavalier helped them to the 2004 Cup and pointed to John Tavares, Drew Doughty and Taylor Hall as players sure to make a difference in their teams in coming years.

But when the topic came around to the latest Maple Leafs foibles, he had to blurt it out. How could Toronto, with its 43-year Cup drought, keep missing the boat on developing its own franchise player, at least since the Wendel Clark era? The guy wasn’t directly criticizing current general manager Brian Burke for the Phil Kessel experiment, agreeing that the trading of two possible first-round lottery picks to Boston will take years to evaluate. He wasn’t writing off Nazem Kadri just eight games into his NHL career and thought trading up to get Luke Schenn in Stamkos’ draft year was a good move.

It was just an expression of empathy with Leafs fans, who have suffered so much because of a three-decade timeline of rash gambles, poor scouting and plain bad luck, still awaiting their next shinny saviour. On Tuesday, the faithful will be watching a prodigy such as Stamkos come into the Air Canada Centre, not far from his Markham birthplace, play for the visitors and probably light them up at least once.

After two goals in the opener of season’s series earlier this month, Stamkos has 13 points in nine games against Toronto in three years, more than any team except the Southeast Division rival Atlanta Thrashers. Stamkos has a league-best 21 goals entering this week, in range of 100 in his career by Christmas and is battling with Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin for the Art Ross Trophy. Unfazed by the media attention thus far, he’s the image-conscious league’s new cover boy.

The Leafs will be hard pressed just to cover him at all. Not only is Stamkos strong, thanks to the Gary Roberts’ training regimen, that translates to his shot, unleashed as he camps at the faceoff dot to his left .

“It will be an unbelievable challenge,” Schenn said. “Since the start of the season and probably since the Olympic break last year, he has probably been the hottest player in the league. He gets to his spots and scores goals just about every night.

“We’ll have to be good as a five-man unit. Not one guy is going to shut him down in particular, it will have to be everyone chipping in.”

Unfortunately for Jonas Gustavsson, it’s he who will have the most influence on the outcome and Stamkos hasn’t been kind to the goalies’ union.

“I’ve played him a couple of times and I know his shot is quick — and it’s accurate,” Gustavsson said. “If it’s a bad angle, he sometimes manages to find the room, too. You just have to prepare all the time when he is on the ice.”

“But they have lots of other skill guts there too (Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis). They do a good job feeding him.”

This could turn out to be an important trip back for Stamkos in terms of his long-term future. It’s expected that Lightning GM Steve Yzerman will use the team’s two-day stop to delve into the meat of a new contract with Stamkos’s team of agents from Newport Sports.

“It’s the place I want to play,” Stamkos said Monday at the St. Petes Times Forum. “I love the players I’m with. I love the city and it’s somewhere I could see myself a long time. Having said that, the only thing I control (about negotiations) is my play. As much as people ask me: ‘How can’t you be worried about it?’ You know it will get done and will play itself out.”

Five years in the $6-million-to-$7-million US range was the likely starting point three weeks ago, before the 20-year-old went on a tear. But the deal will likely take months to finalize. Stamkos, who enjoys playing with St. Louis on his line, isn’t expected to try to break the bank with his contract demands.

“It’s the place I want to play,” Stamkos told the Toronto Sun earlier this month.

Too bad for the Leafs.


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