StamkosLeBron James’ return to the Cleveland Cavaliers has become the feel-good NBA story of the summer, and the Toronto Maple Leafs are hoping for a similar fairy tale in 2016.

That’s when Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, who grew up cheering for the Leafs, can become a free agent and choose the next path in his career.

Adam Proteau of The Hockey News wrote a column on July 10 about the possibility of an NHL superstar making a LeBron-like decision and going home to Toronto. He followed that piece up with another article on July 14, where he dove deeper into the idea of Stamkos returning to the Greater Toronto Area.

Proteau cites conversations with NHL sources that make him now think there’s an even stronger chance Stamkos could end up in Toronto.

“(A) source said he really believed there was a chance he could sign with the Leafs when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2016 – but that Toronto would have to give Stamkos a maximum-value contract (i.e. 20 percent of the salary cap) to get it done. The same source believed a big-time push for Stamkos is exactly the type of marquee move Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment head honcho Tim Lieweke loves to make.”

Proteau also wrote that the Stamkos-to-Toronto speculation around the league is nothing new.

Stamkos addressed the speculation in an interview with Stephen Whyno of The Canadian Press earlier this week.

“We’ll see what happens. It’s a couple years away,” Stamkos said. “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.”

Stamkos didn’t say anything to put the speculation to rest, but there’s no reason for Lightning fans to freak out — at least not yet. The 24-year-old center still has two more years left on a contract that carries a $7.5 million salary cap hit.

Tampa Bay has made several impressive roster additions over the offseason and appear to be among the top contenders in the Eastern Conference heading into the 2014-15 season. Winning is the best way to keep Stamkos long term.

At the same time, the appeal of going home to Toronto and helping the Leafs end a Stanley Cup drought approaching 50 years might be enough for some players to make a move to Canada’s largest city.

We’ll have to wait a while before we find out if Stamkos is willing to shoulder the pressure and expectations that come with playing in Toronto.

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