On Monday, two of the frontrunners to sign pending unrestricted free agent John Tavares made their pitches to the superstar center. These two teams, the Maple Leafs and Islanders, represent two opposite markets, symbolic of the spectrum of teams that seek Tavares’ services. It was reported on Draft day that about six teams would present to Tavares, and they all have something different and unique to offer to Tavares. His current club has some steep competition as he decides what his next team will be.
John Tavares was born and raised in Mississauga, a few miles outside of Toronto, Ontario. Canada’s largest city is a hockey hotbed. He grew up playing hockey with current NHLers Steven Stamkos, Alex Pietrangelo, and Michael Del Zotto. He also lived minutes away from Sam Gagner of the Vancouver Canucks. He has deep roots in the city. It comes as no surprise then that the team he rooted for growing up would want to have him on their side. The question is, are they the best fit, and can they afford him? Toronto already boasts three quality centers in Auston Matthews, Nazem Kadri, and Tyler Bozak (if he re-signs). Prospect Frederick Gauthier would be the ideal number three center should Bozak depart. There is seemingly no place for JT in the lineup, and some are concerned that Tavares has no place on this team. Sportsnet Canada personality and diehard Leafs fan Steve Dangle discussed the possibility of bringing Tavares to Toronto and he said “how do you fit John Tavares on to your team? You’re looking at it the wrong way… it’s not about how you fit him onto your team, it’s how fit the team around him.” The Leafs are looking to take the next step and become true contenders for the Stanley Cup, and they may choose to play Kadri in a third line center role, allowing for Tavares and Matthews to center the top two lines. That Maple Leafs team would start to look very similar to the Stanley Cup champion Penguins. They already boast loads of young talent in Mitchell Marner, Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnnson, and William Nylander. Playing Tavares with any of these players is dangerous against any opponent.
As good as this sounds for Tavares, there are some downsides to playing there as well. Tavares is known to be someone who doesn’t like attention. Toronto is a major hockey city, and he’ll be getting attention there that he never would on Long Island. He also might be placed into a second-line center role which may not be attractive to him. Most other teams looking at Tavares are seeking a top line center, whereas the Maple Leafs are looking to round out their forward group. The salary cap is also an issue for the Leafs. A majority of their young stars are still on Entry Level Contracts, and many are up after next season. Signing him to a deal worth $11 million per season would be salary cap suicide for the organization. Instead, many have floated the idea of signing him to a 1-year $15.9 million, the max under the CBA, then to an 8-year deal at a cheaper average annual value. The question remains, does Tavares want to leave $77 million on the table for a year, along with all the other concerns addressed before. The Leafs are a good bet to sign Tavares but we’ll have to wait and see.
Another team in the mix for JT is the San Jose Sharks. They are in a very different situation than the Leafs. Joe Thornton is also a UFA, and although he may stay with the Sharks, he is no longer the player he was a few years ago. Tavares would slot in as the number one center for the Sharks. They boast less talent than the Leafs but his presence would still make them a cup contender once again. Their defense is among the best in the NHL, and goaltender Martin Jones continues to be solid in net. They also have the cap room to sign Tavares, so a seven-year, $12+ million contract is possible for the Sharks. San Jose is also not a large hockey market, so Tavares would be able to avoid the massive media attention he would have in Toronto.
Dallas is also one of the teams that should be meeting with Tavares. They’re similar to the Sharks in that they’re not a major hockey market but are a strong team with cup aspirations, especially if Tavares signs. Team captain Jamie Benn expressed his excitement over Tavares’ potential move to the Lone Star State saying “it’s nice to have our team’s name on the list” and “you never know what’s going to happen.” Goaltender Ben Bishop equated this summer’s turmoil to what the NBA experienced a few summers ago with Kevin Durant, although hopefully with a different outcome. However, unlike most of the other teams that Tavares is looking at, they lack forward depth for him to play with. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn are one of, if not the best duo in the league right now, and they aren’t getting separated. Tavares will surely be the number two center in Dallas. Still, Dallas has few wingers that will flank Tavares should he sign there. As of now, it would seem like his linemates could be Denis Gurianov and Valeri Nichushkin. Also possibilities are Mattias Janmark and Gemel Smith, but all four of these players pail in comparison to other linemates offered in other cities.
Tampa always seems to be in the running for the best players in trades and signings and this summer is no exception. The runners up for the President’s Trophy and Eastern Conference Finalists are still looking to get over the hump and win their second Stanley Cup. Like the Maple Leafs, the Lighting would likely place current second line center Tyler Johnson on their third line to make room for Tavares. Alternatively, they can play Tavares on the top line and move Stamkos to the wing. Their lineup is one of the most versatile in the NHL, and anyone on that team can play practically anywhere. Head coach John Cooper is one of the best in the game and should have no trouble modifying his lineup to make room for the star center. Tampa is in a small market, which Tavares seemingly likes, but Tampa also has salary cap issues. Nikita Kucherov is only making $4.75 million and deserves a pay raise. The team just signed JT Miller to a $5.25 million AAV contract extension. However, Florida has no state income tax, allowing them to sign players at cheaper rates than most of the NHL. That’s how they were able to sign Steven Stamkos for only $8.5 million a few summers ago. Tavares would make about the same amount of money on a $9-10 million contract in Florida as he would on an $11 million deal pretty much anywhere else. Those two million dollars can go a long way for any NHL team in the cap era. With division rivals Toronto and Boston also in the mix, don’t count out the Lightning from making a push to sign Tavares.
Finally, the New York Islanders would love nothing more than to secure their franchise center and superstar. The number one overall selection in 2009 has been a gift to the franchise, leading them to their first playoff series win in 23 years, scoring the fifth most goals in the NHL since he broke in to the league, and honorably becoming the franchise’s 14th captain. He means so much to the organization and its fans, and he’s only getting better as he enter his prime. John Tavares is the number one center for the Islanders. Mathew Barzal will play on the second line. Both excelled in these positions last season. John knows his teammates and they look up to him as a leader and friend. The Islanders are finally under new management. Led by legendary GM Lou Lamiorello, the organization has signaled to Tavares and the rest of the team that they looking at things from a new perspective after missing the playoffs two years in a row. This management group also brought in Stanley Cup champion head coach Barry Trotz. It’s the first time the team has hired a coach with this great a track record, ever. He has over 700 wins to his name, multiple second round playoff appearances, and a Stanley Cup. The team is also on its way out of Brooklyn, with the team set to play half its home games for the next three seasons at the Nassau Coliseum before moving to Belmont in a few years time. It’s never been a better time to be an Islander, and fans across Long Island are hoping that management is relaying this to our star.