Amid all the speculation about the future of Steven Stamkos, one thing is certain: Stamkos is NOT Phil Kessel.
Steven Stamkos, the Leafs Captain Phil Kessel Couldn’t Be
Kessel’s time in Toronto redefined “hot-dogging”, and saw a rift between a team and its fans the likes of which we’ve never seen in this city. Should the Toronto Maple Leafs be able to sign the prized free agent, Stamkos would represent the antithesis of Kessel. He would be a perfect candidate for the new Leafs captain. It starts with how he would be acquired.
Acquiring a star player via free agency is worlds away from trading for one. The trade that brought Kessel to Toronto need not be re-hashed for the umpteenth time; suffice it to say that the Maple Leafs gave up more than they intended. Stamkos’ acquisition via free agency would come at the cost of his salary and cap space. That’s not to say that Lou Lamoriello can or will play fast and loose with cap space. His track record (Ilya Kovalchuk excepted) suggests quite the contrary. But on a team with a stable of young (read: entry-level contract) forward prospects, cap space is one positive the Leafs GM has to work with.
In a market so bereft of championships for so long, fans have come to prize the appearance of effort over ability. Few examples are better than the love shown Wendel Clark versus Mats Sundin. Clark was the prairie boy with the hard shot who busted heads for a living, whereas Sundin was a soft-spoken Swede whose sheer talent and strength made everything he did look impossibly easy. Leafs fans cheered Clark’s fights and slap shots, while some derided Sundin’s effortless skating and shooting.
In Toronto, this makes some sense. After all, if you’re always the underdog, you might as well embrace the role.
Phil Kessel is of course no underdog. He is bit of a freak of nature; a player with a god-given, Steph Curry-like ability to find net from almost anywhere. Much has been speculated about his fitness regimen, or perceived lack thereof. While the trade to Pittsburgh spurred him to subject himself to Gary Roberts‘ famous off-season conditioning program, Kessel’s incredible skill on the ice is rarely attributed to hard work in the gym.
Stamkos, on the other hand, had been working with Roberts for years. Stamkos, you see, is more the prototypical professional athlete. If you’re looking for a star player to lead younger players by example (let alone be fan favourite), you pick Stamkos over Kessel any day of the week.
Certainly Phil Kessel wanted to win in Toronto. His problem was that he failed to give the appearance of caring; in the eyes of Leafs Nation the two ideas are both indivisible and intolerable.
The interesting thing about Stamkos is that he presents Leafs fans with the best of both worlds. He is both an elite talent and a dedicated athlete. He might very well choose to spend prime years of his career living a childhood dream. Toronto would love him for being Steven Stamkos, and that’s a dream scenario for MLSE.
Being The Man
Surely a Steven Stamkos number 91 jersey would fend off Auston Matthews for the best-selling blue and white garb in Toronto this fall. The bona-fide NHL star would instantly become the face of the franchise, just ahead of the up-and-coming talents for the time being.
While Phil Kessel has been allowed to perform in the shadows of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh, the Leafs needed him to be the driving force behind the team’s offence. Fans hope that by the time Stamkos is halfway through his tenure in Toronto, the team wouldn’t need him to lead them in scoring, let alone carry the load on his own. The Leafs would count on a 30-year-old Steven Stamkos to provide veteran leadership-by-example on a developing team. By that time, players who were sucking at mama’s breast while Stamkos was suiting up for the Unionville Minor Hockey Association should be ready to take the reins.
Should Stamkos sign with Toronto, Leafs fans might think to look forward to a close-up view of the two players in meaningful head-to-head competition at the World Cup of Hockey. Perplexingly, though, Team USA has other plans. For Leafs Nation, the comparison is moot. Steven Stamkos fits the picture of the hometown hero, something they haven’t seen for quite some time.