Maple Leafs speculation continues to swirl as Stamkos returns to Toronto

Steven Stamkos returned Tuesday to the city that likes him back. In the aftermath of a furor over “liking” a tweet about the Maple Leafs pursuing him, the Tampa Bay Lightning captain came to Toronto and faced the team many hockey observers have speculated could sign him this summer.

Stamkos — who grew up in nearby Markham, Ont. — has said his actions on Twitter, recently and two summers ago, were accidental. After NBA star LeBron James went “home” to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Stamkos also liked a tweet speculating about him being hockey’s version of that.

No matter the intent, Stamkos not having a contract extension with the Lightning is more than enough fuel for speculation about his future. Information about negotiations has been tightly guarded by his camp at Newport Sports and Tampa Bay management.

“Time’s going to tell,” Stamkos said after the Lightning beat the Leafs 5-4 in overtime. “Everything will figure itself out. My main focus is trying to focus on my game, and it hasn’t been that great as of late. I’m trying to find a way to help contribute a little more.”

Stamkos did not have a point but set a screen on one goal as the Lightning won on back-to-back nights. As expected, this event was more of a circus than a day earlier in Columbus.

A local radio station printed “Sign Stamkos” signs to be distributed for Tuesday night’s game, but they were not allowed into Air Canada Centre because they were illegally sponsored, according to a team spokesman. The spokesman said homemade signs are allowed as long as they don’t include profanity and fit size specifications.

One fan sitting in the corner where the Lightning warmed up held up a sign that read, “The ‘like’ was not a mistake. It was destiny.” Between the words was a math equation: a picture of Stamkos plus the Leafs logo equals the Stanley Cup.

Stamkos has never ruled out the possibility of playing for the Leafs at some point in his career. This would be his chance.

“I’m not going to look too far into that just because I don’t have a crystal ball,” said Leafs forward Shawn Matthias, who was Stamkos’s roommate at the 2008 world junior championship. “I can’t predict the future. He’s a great player. I’m sure everybody around the league would love to play with him because he’s done so much in the game already.”

Stamkos has 11 goals and 11 assists in his 32 games this season but is almost a point-a-game player in his career. In 523 NHL games, he has 287 goals and 233 assists for 520 points.

“Obviously I do have high expectations, and (my stats are) not where I want them to be,” Stamkos said. “It’s not from a lack of effort, and I think that’s where you can look yourself in the mirror and say you’re trying, you’re working hard, it’s not going in.”

Stamkos will still only be 26 when next season starts, and he’s due a major payday. A long-term contract worth an average of US$10.5 million per year isn’t out of the question.

The elephant-in-the-room question is whether Stamkos will be paid by the Lightning or another team. He can insulate himself a bit in Tampa, but Tuesday brought the subject back to the forefront.

“This is Toronto,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “This is the hockey Mecca, and people want to know. It’s a story. And he’s probably one of the most talented players to become (an unrestricted free agent) in his mid-20s. That doesn’t happen, especially in this era. So of course it’s going to be a story.”

A year ago, coach Mike Babcock was the biggest impending free agent and buzz about him going to the Leafs came true. Looking back, Babcock said he didn’t think about it or let it affect his job.

“The only time it bothered me to be honest with you (was) when I came here and people would be yelling at you, ‘Are you coming here?’ Other than that, you didn’t even notice it was going on,” Babcock said. “You didn’t worry about it. And I expect it’s the same for him. I think the noise around you only affects you if you listen to it.

“If you just get on with your life, the hunting channel and country music, you don’t even know what’s going on.”

Stamkos doesn’t pretend he doesn’t know what’s going on but said his latest visit to Toronto felt like another game once the puck dropped. Outside the game itself, the saga continues.

“You never know what to expect heading into the season. You never know how it’s going to be until you go through it,” Stamkos said “It’s been something that you think about from time to time.”