Maple Leafs complicate Steven Stamkos contract situation with Dion Phaneuf trade

Dion Phaneuf was traded to the Ottawa Senators Tuesday, but the trade might affect Steven Stamkos's future. 

Winslow Townson & Brad Rempel/US

The Toronto Maple Leafs completed a nine-player trade on Tuesday that sent captain Dion Phaneuf and the entirety of his seven-year, $49 million contract to the Ottawa Senators. Instead of generating chatter about the teams involved in the trade, the discussion on social media in the aftermath of the trade centered around Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos. 

In theory, this trade has nothing to do with Stamkos. His team was not involved, but Stamkos is in a contract year and could become a free agent for the first time in his career this summer should he fail to sign an extension prior to July 1 with the Lightning. Stamkos also hails from Ontario, meaning Leafs fans would like nothing more than to have a hometown hero sign with the Leafs and lead the franchise to glory. According to Leafs fans on social media, this trade improves Toronto’s chances of signing Stamkos. 

The rumors about Stamkos and Toronto have been a story all season. Earlier this year, Stamkos only increased the volume of those rumors when he liked a tweet asking whether the Leafs should try to sign him. Stamkos later unliked the tweet and said the entire thing was just an accident, but it was not the first time Stamkos clicked the like button on tweets speculating about a possible Toronto future for the Markham, Ont., native. 

Still, a few liked tweets does not prove Stamkos wants to go to Toronto. There are multiple factors in play regarding where Stamkos will choose to sign.

Money is certainly a part of this — it always is — and Stamkos will command one of the largest salaries in the league with his next contract wherever he signs. He will need to go to a team that can afford to commit significant money to him over a long period of time. Toronto put itself in good position to do so by clearing up significant cap space via the Phaneuf trade. 

Toronto has 15 players whose contracts are up at the end of the year anyway, meaning the Leafs probably would have been able to find a way to make a Stamkos contract work even if it did not trade Phaneuf. The trade simply means the Leafs no longer have $7 million per year committed to one player, and perhaps some of that money could go toward building a better team around Stamkos.

Then there are the emotional factors, which are much more complicated to figure out. The question remains whether Stamkos wants to win now or gamble instead on a team which will take at least a few years to become a serious postseason contender.

Without Phaneuf, the Leafs are only more lacking in quality NHL players. Goaltending is shaky, as James Reimer’s contract expires at the end of the year and Jonathan Bernier remains inconsistent in net.

The Leafs don’t have much on defense beyond Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner, two young blue liners who don’t come close to comparing to some of the elite players on real playoff teams. Leo Komarov and James van Riemsdyk are both solid offensive players, but beyond them, the Leafs are average at best. If Stamkos signs a large deal with Toronto, will the cleared-up cap space from Phaneuf actually leave enough money to surround Stamkos with the teammates he will need in order to win? 

Toronto does hold clear appeal as Stamkos’s hometown team, and Toronto fans have already seen coach Mike Babcock eschew a winning present in favor of the chance to become a type of savior for the Maple Leafs franchise. It is not unfathomable that Stamkos would choose to do the same.

But Stamkos is already the face of a franchise in Tampa that he helped turn around. The Lightning were far from a competitor when they drafted Stamkos first overall in the 2008 NHL Draft, but by the 2010-11 season, an organizational rebuild helped the Lightning to the Conference Finals of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and Tampa has made the playoffs in three of the past five seasons. Stamkos came closer than ever to the Stanley Cup last season when the Lightning lost in the Stanley Cup Finals to the Chicago Blackhawks. Given how close Tampa has gotten to winning, Stamkos might not be ready to give up on the franchise just yet.  

The trade also affects Tampa Bay’s trade deadline plans. If Stamkos has no intention of signing with Tampa — especially now that Toronto has paved a clear way for Stamkos to step in up North — Tampa could look into trading Stamkos at the deadline to get something in return for him rather than losing Stamkos with no compensation in the offseason. 

Tampa also sits in second place in the division and is primed for another playoff run. Losing Stamkos would hurt — doom? — the Lightning’s postseason chances unless the return for Stamkos is incredible, and that type of return would likely only come from a team that is already prepared to sign Stamkos to a contract extension. That limits the teams available to trade with, and Tampa is already at Stamkos’s mercy in terms of trade partners since Stamkos has a no-movement clause.

Even if Stamkos is okay with going to Toronto, the Leafs do not have the types of players on their roster worthy of a trade for Stamkos. The Lightning would have to weigh whether acquiring lower-quality players via trade is actually better than getting nothing should Stamkos leave via free agency. 

The only clear aspect of this situation is that Stamkos holds all the cards over the Lightning, Leafs and any other team in want of his services. So while Toronto’s Phaneuf trade might have made it easier for the Leafs to sign Stamkos, the team’s hands are still tied until Stamkos himself makes it clear what he wants to do.

Arielle Aronson writes about the NHL for FOX Sports. You can follow her on Twitter @aharonson28.