TORONTO – LeBron James going home to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers led to speculation about whether a star NHL player might do the same in the near future.
Naturally, Steven Stamkos was at the centre of that speculation. The Tampa Bay Lightning captain and Markham, Ont., native could be an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2016, and the allure of playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs could be there.
“We’ll see what happens. It’s a couple years away,” Stamkos said Wednesday. “Right now I’m focused on what I have to do to win in Tampa, and I think we’ve really established ourselves as a team that can compete in upcoming years.
“For me, that’s the important thing is getting a chance to win. It looks like we’re going to have that chance for a couple years.”
At the age of 24, Stamkos is one of the most marketable stars in the NHL. He has topped 50 goals in a season twice already and only missed out on representing Canada at the Sochi Olympics because of a broken leg.
Stamkos made a run with the Lightning to the Eastern Conference final in 2011, and Tampa Bay was swept by the Montreal Canadiens in this year’s playoffs. The Stanley Cup is his priority now, something he can legitimately think about with general manager Steve Yzerman piecing together one of the best young teams in the league.
“We have a good thing going down in Tampa,” Stamkos said at a Coca-Cola ball-hockey promotional event. “We have a great owner, we got a great GM in Steve Yzerman and we got a good young team. I want to win, and hopefully I can do it in Tampa.”
Stamkos said with the additions of centre Brian Boyle and defenceman Anton Stralman and the re-signing of winger Ryan Callahan, the Lightning are probably better on paper than they were at the end of last season.
“We didn’t have the finish we wanted to last year, but with the new faces coming in, the expectations are probably set a little higher,” he said.
Stamkos said chatter about joining the Leafs in two years was “absolutely not” a distraction for him in Tampa, where he’ll begin his first full season as captain this fall.
“I try not to focus about that stuff,” he said. “I think that’s the great thing about playing in Tampa is hockey isn’t the mecca that it is here in Toronto and you can kind of go about your life and kind of get away from the game when you need to.”
That said, Stamkos added that he loves playing in good hockey markets, including Toronto.
“I’m from around here and grew up cheering for the Leafs, so any time I get a chance to come back here I enjoy it, and any time I get a chance to play against the Leafs it’s fun,” he said. “It’s also fun beating them, too, because a lot of my friends are still Leaf fans.”
Stamkos is set to make US$13.5 million over the next two seasons. What could be in his not-too-distant future is a contract like the ones Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane signed with the Chicago Blackhawks: $84 million over eight years.
“The business part of the game, it’s growing,” Stamkos said. “Obviously the game’s in good shape, and when that happens the cap’s going to grow and players are going to get paid more money. Those guys deserve it: They’re great players in this league, they’ve won championships.
“That’s the goal for me is to win a championship. You let your play take care of itself on the ice and when it’s time to re-sign or sign a contract, you back it up with your play.”
When James left the Miami Heat for the Cavaliers earlier this month, the chance to return to his native Ohio was cited as a prominent reason. James won two NBA titles during his time with the Heat.
“He won his championships, he said he always wanted to come home and play, that’s where it started,” Stamkos said. “Good for him for making that decision.”
Follow @SWhyno on Twitter
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version stated Stamkos missed the Olympics with a knee injury.