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Hockey Can the Maple Leafs afford a superstar’s supersized contract?

Tampa Bay Lightning star Steven Stamkos, centre, skates alongside Toronto Maple Leafs’ Joffrey Lupul, left, and Daniel Winnik at the Air Canada Centre on Dec. 15.

Claus Andersen/Getty Images

The show is over. The favoured son came, made headlines, played 21 minutes, went pointless, said little and went on to the next stop on the Tampa Bay Lightning road trip.

But the Steven Stamkos-to-Toronto talk is far from over.

The talk radio/social media debate over making Stamkos a Maple Leaf, if he gets to free agency on July 1, has been a fascinating one the past week.

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On one side are the "do it all costs" types, those who want Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment to hand over a blank cheque to Stamkos's agent, Don Meehan, and say, "Welcome aboard!"

The opposing arguments warn about a likely decline in production as Stamkos approaches 30 – he'll be 26 in February – and the impact of a huge free-agent contract on the Leafs' salary cap.

NHL revenue is not projecting well. It went up approximately 5 per cent last season year over year, but the Canadian dollar's drop in value will have a much bigger impact after a full season played under the 80-cent mark. (The loonie closed at 72.55 cents U.S. on Wednesday, which is a decline of 23 per cent since July, 2014.)

Flat revenue will mean a smaller increase to the NHL's 2016-17 cap, with the upper estimate set at $74.5-million (all figures U.S.) by the league at last week's board of governors' meetings.

That's not great news for teams like the Leafs, who can afford to spend to the upper limit but also have a lot of bad contracts on their books past this season.

Does that leave room for Stamkos, who will command at least $10-million annually on a long-term deal?

Let us ponder the mess that Brendan Shanahan and company have to work with.

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The Leafs have only nine NHL players under contract for next season. If you add in the combined $2.5-million in dead money for Tim Gleason's buyout and the 15 per cent of Phil Kessel's contract they retained in the trade with Pittsburgh, Toronto has committed almost $40-million to nine other players.

That group includes Dion Phaneuf and his $7-million-a-season deal, Joffrey Lupul ($5.25-million) and Jonathan Bernier ($4.15-million).

Ouch.

That leaves the Leafs with $36-million to spend on 13 or 14 more players – provided they place Nathan Horton and Stéphane Robidas on injured reserve for all of next year.

It's a considerable amount of money, but a big chunk of it will go to the team's young restricted free agents who need new contracts. Morgan Rielly, in particular, will not be cheap if he continues to play first-pairing minutes and produces at a 40-points-a-season pace.

Add those six or seven contracts in, and the Leafs are looking at $22-million in cap space with one-third of a roster to fill.

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Several spots will go to young players. William Nylander and Mitch Marner appear ready to play for the Leafs next season, and they'll do so on cheap entry-level deals that will help Toronto's cap situation immensely.

But if the Leafs add someone like Stamkos for an annual hit of $11-million or more, they will seriously limit their ability to add salary elsewhere. Even with Stamkos, Nylander and Marner in the lineup, Shanahan will likely need two more decent forwards, a top-six defenceman and, potentially, a starter in goal.

All for about $8-million.

The Leafs' cap situation isn't dire. They have room for Stamkos (or another superstar salary). But that dead money (Gleason and Kessel), bad money (Phaneuf, Lupul and Bernier) and new money (Rielly, Nazem Kadri and Peter Holland) adds up.

And the result isn't a great team.

In the best-case scenario, the Leafs can find a taker for some of their players with bad deals. Even moving one of those three players – or Tyler Bozak – creates far more breathing room to bring in Stamkos, which improves the rest of the lineup.

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Getting more help from the Toronto Marlies would be a big bonus, and there are signs that players such as Josh Leivo, Brendan Leipsic or Scott Harrington may be ready to contribute.

But one of the real keys to winning the Stanley Cup under the NHL's current salary system is getting a degree of efficiency in your lineup. The Chicago Blackhawks have won three Cups in the past six years in part because they had Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith on bargain contracts, few terrible deals elsewhere and enough cap space left over to surround them with quality depth.

So even if the Leafs do get Stamkos, they've still got multiple anchors to throw overboard before they can get seriously competitive.

In this situation, unloading their junk is likely just as vital as landing the big fish.

And it's more difficult, given the cap logjam around the league.

Leafs estimated salary situation next summer

Signed for 2016-17PositionSalaries
PhaneufD$7,000,000
LupulLW$5,250,000
Van RiemsdykLW$4,250,000
BozakC$4,200,000
BernierG$4,150,000
GardinerD$4,050,000
KomarovC$2,950,000
WinnikC$2,250,000
HunwickD$1,200,000
FroeseC$575,000
GleasonBuyout$1,333,333
KesselRetain$1,200,000
Total$38,408,333
Need to re-signPositionEstimated
RiellyD$4,900,000
KadriC$4,200,000
HollandC$1,750,000
MarincinD$1,000,000
HarringtonD$850,000
PanikLW$800,000
CorradoD$700,000
Total$14,200,000
Total$52,608,333
Stamkos? $11,000,000
Cap space$7,791,667
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