For the past few days, much of the sports world has been swept up in breathless anticipation of the future of NBA phenom LeBron James. The superstar is mulling over whether to re-sign with a Miami Heat team he led to two championships and four league Final appearances in the past four seasons, or whether to return to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. Some observers have a tough time believing James could wave goodbye to the sun and sights of Florida for Ohio’s far less exotic environs, but his deep connections to his birthplace of Akron, Ohio and his lasting roots in the area clearly are tempting.
The pressure on James after a return to Cleveland would be monstrous, but it’s a credit to him that he’d be willing to deal with it as a form of community service – and, let’s face it, a karmic payback for clumsily leaving the Cavs in 2010. Sure, the Cavs have enough elite young talent to make his return pay off competitively, but James could play on any team for any amount of money and he should be commended for considering heading back to that environment.
But it got me to thinking: when will there be a LeBron James for the Toronto Maple Leafs?
Here’s what I mean: with the NHL’s salary cap limiting the amount of money any team can pay a star player, personal choice is as big a factor, if not the biggest factor in the employment decisions free agents make. In recent years, we’ve seen numerous NHL stars eschew higher-profile destinations in favor of teams/cities they had an off-ice connection to: In 2012, Minnesota signed stars Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in part because Parise grew up in that state and Suter’s wife hails from there; this summer, Thomas Vanek turned down more lucrative offers to sign with the Wild because his wife is from the area and because he attended college at the University of Minnesota.
But the same never seems to be the case for the Leafs.
Sure, they’ll be able to sign a second-tier local star such as David Clarkson if they overpay him enough; and yeah, they’re good at acquiring marquee names at the end of their NHL days (Joe Nieuwendyk, Eric Lindros), but when it comes to convincing a young star in the prime of his career to play in Blue and White, Toronto has unfailingly failed. The game has had dozens of elite talents hailing from the city and most, if not all of them will tell you they grew up cheering for the Buds, but none have had the inclination to put themselves squarely in the line of fire by signing with their favorite childhood team.
In many regards, it’s difficult to blame them: if you can get the same amount of money from the New York Rangers or Carolina Hurricanes and disappear into the bright lights of Manhattan or the country air of Raleigh after work, why would you want to subject yourself to the ceaseless spotlight of Toronto? (That said, let’s be clear: I’m not saying the local media here are the issue. By and large, the Toronto reporters aren’t vicious piranhas; rather, it’s the sheer volume of interest that wears on players.)
But sooner or later, you’d think there’d be a young player with the self-confidence to believe he could navigate the waters in Toronto and lead the Leafs to their first Stanley Cup championship in a half-century. It will drive their fans into fits of apoplexy to even consider it, but Lightning captain Steven Stamkos and Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban both fit that mold for me; they’re different personalities, but they both welcome pressure and handle the media with ease. I’m not saying it’s likely either star ever gets to the point where playing for the Leafs becomes a possibility, but imagine the reaction in Toronto – not to mention, Montreal and Tampa Bay – if they ever stepped up with the mindset James has been flirting with and chose to come home in their prime. It wouldn’t be just off the charts. It’d be off every chart ever charted.
Leafs management may yet arrive at the conclusion the only way they’ll ever land a true game-changing player will be by selecting at the top of the entry draft. I think that’s ultimately the safest way to get there. But there is another way – the personal appeal route. The trick is to convince a Subban, Stamkos, John Tavares or another elite talent that subjecting themselves to Toronto’s rigors is worthwhile because the upside of winning here is better than it is for any other franchise.
If you can win a Cup at home, and that home is Toronto, and you're the best player on that team, you’ll be revered like few other athletes in NHL history. That’s the pitch. All Brendan Shanahan & Co. have to do now is find someone who believes it can happen.
The Leafs’ own LeBron.