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Big trade is way for Leafs to make a run at Stamkos

Look up at the Tampa Bay Lightning, who were in the Stanley Cup final last June. Look up at the Florida Panthers, who have burst to the top of the Atlantic Division thanks to their mix of top draft picks and wily veterans and made the Sabres look quite bad for much of Tuesday night.

I’ve got some new advice for Sabres fans who think the team’s ascension is a lock: Better look behind you, too. The Toronto Maple Leafs are gaining fast. They took some major steps forward Tuesday. And just wait for the draft and July 1.

The nine-player trade between the Leafs and Ottawa Senators was really only about one player in the now. That’s Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf, who heads to Ottawa in a better role as a second-pair defenseman and without the exorbitant pressure of being the Leafs’ captain. Now he can slide into a role behind Erik Karlsson, the face of the Senators.

For the Leafs, it was about shedding Phaneuf’s $7 million salary that runs through 2021. It was a deal few observers thought could happen. For that point, no one thought the Leafs could ever get rid of the bloated deals signed by David Clarkson and Phil Kessel, either. But they did it all in a year.

That’s Houdini work by Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello & Co. And maybe it gives the Sabres some shred of hope that some sucker, er, team will take the remaining three years at $5 million per of Matt Moulson off their hands.

In a conference call Tuesday, Lamoriello said it allows the Leafs to do “things” moving forward.

Easy translation: The vault is now officially open for Steven Stamkos to come home on July 1. The Tampa Bay captain still doesn’t have a deal. The Lightning’s initial offer of a reported $8.5 million is low, especially when you consider Stamkos is likely looking at the $10.5 million Chicago gave to Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.

You want to accelerate a rebuild, you can do it by getting a star of that caliber. It might be the biggest star to move since Wayne Gretzky was traded to Los Angeles in 1988. Imagine how he could change the Leafs. Mike Babcock didn’t get the chance to coach Connor McDavid, but you know he’s all over the Stamkos possibility. And he could get even more.

Large segments of social media immediately accused the Leafs of tanking after the deal but I disagree. Of course, the Leafs want Auston Matthews but tanking isn’t going to get you far this year with the new lottery rules that determine the top three picks by chance, rather than just No. 1. And the Leafs certainly went for better optics as well, compared to what the Sabres and Arizona did last season.

The Leafs acquired three players with more than 1,200 games of NHL experience, albeit Colin Greening has been stuck in the minors most of this season, and cleared out salary cap space for free agency. If they want to buy out one of them this summer, they’ll have even more room.

And there’s this nugget brought to light by TSN last month: If newly-acquired defenseman Jared Cowen is bought out of the final year of his deal in June, that team would gain a $650,000 salary-cap credit – yes, I said credit – for next season.

It could give the Leafs a little more wiggle room. Or they could peddle Cowen somewhere else to a team looking to cover overage penalties for next season, which are applied when teams pay bonuses in contracts but don’t have the money in this year’s cap.

(According to TSN, Cowen would be just the fourth player since 2005 to create a credit – and the Sabres realized two of the other three in Nathan Gerbe and Cody Hodgson. Buffalo got a credit of roughly $91,000 for Gerbe two years ago and will realize about $458,000 of extra cap space for Hodgson during the 2018-19 season.)

Some pretty snazzy cap work there by the Leafs. And they have less than $30 million committed for the 2017-18 season too. Stamkos might have to be prepared to lose for a year or two, just like Babcock. The big money can tide them over.

Buffalo fans might cringe at the thought, but the NHL is a better place when the Leafs are relevant. The Sabres-Leafs rivalry simply doesn’t have much oomph when these two teams are battling for the bottom of the league. It’s still hard to believe after all these years, albeit the Leafs spent some time in the West, that they’ve played just one playoff series in 45 years.

The legitimate concern here is the Sabres have most of their future core in Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Ryan O’Reilly, Evander Kane, Rasmus Ristolainen, Zach Bogosian and Robin Lehner. It’s one reason why entering Tuesday just one point up on the Leafs – and just one point out of the NHL basement – rates as an abject disappointment.

The Leafs have prospects in juniors like No. 1 pick Mitch Marner. And they have strong prospects in the AHL, where the Toronto Marlies are 37-8-4 and look like the Calder Cup favorite. The Rochester Amerks are 23-24, mostly devoid of prospects other than Justin Bailey and perhaps Nick Baptiste.

While the Sabres are much better to the eye this year, even if they don’t show it in the standings, other teams are working to get better, too. Maybe even faster than Tim Murray & Co. expected. No one during the Sabres’ rebuild, for instance, figured the Leafs getting good quickly would be an issue.

It sure looks like it’s going to be now.

email: mharrington@buffnews.com

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