Source: Kathy Willens/AP
Never before has there been a free agent in the NHL this good in his prime - a bona fide, franchise #1 centre hitting the open market. John Tavares has this unique opportunity, (something we saw come close to happening 2 years ago with Steven Stamkos). In fact, since the minimum age of free agency in the NHL was dropped to 27 years old (or 7 years of service) there has never been a player of this calibre change teams in his prime like we see in other sports. Every time it ever gets close the player would re-sign with their existing team who they had already spent their entire career with. Why are franchise hockey players so loyal? Why do they always commit to those who drafted them long term, regardless of how good or bad the team is? You could definitely make the case that Stamkos' best option was to stay in Tampa because out of all the teams interested at the time, his Lightning had the best chance to win a Stanley Cup, having been to back-to-back conference finals including a finals berth. But this is far from the case with the New York Islanders, the only team Tavares has ever known as we look at the success he has had playing there versus what grass could be greener on the other side. Yes there are 4 other teams said to be finalists as well - Boston, Dallas, San Jose and Tampa Bay - but I believe that if he doesn't go to his hometown Maple Leafs then he just stays in Long Island, so as this big decision is looming and taking a life of its own let's look at the pros and cons of both teams:
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
PROS: Tavares is the #1 centre there and it is his team as the face of the franchise. They also now have new ownership who have hired long-time General Manager Lou Lamoriello to run the entire operation, along with Barry Trotz to coach the team which seems to have them heading in the right direction. A new building is also finally in the works to keep the team in Long Island long-term. Lots of cap room to keep him and pay him the maximum amount, as well as being the only team that can offer him an 8th year and maximum money on a long-term contract.
CONS: The Islanders have missed the playoffs 6 times in the last 9 years Tavares has played there. Mind you 3 of those were his 1st 3 years when the team was and they were in a complete rebuild mode which is how they got him to begin with. They have just 1 playoff series win in 2016, when Tavares had his coming out party and carried his team to victory beating the Florida Panthers in 6 games. Since famously going to the conference finals in 1993, it is the only playoff series this Islanders franchise has won since then - yes 1 playoff series win in a quarter of a century. Tavares wants to win - Lou and Barry better sell him a plan that convinces him that they will, or else.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS:
PROS: Obviously, this was always going to be a team in the mix with it being his hometown. Who wouldn't want to join this core group of young players for the next several years to try and win in the largest hockey market in the world? No doubt they are in a much better situation than his current team, and would fulfill his lifelong dream of playing for the team he grew up cheering for. The Leafs are one of those 10-12 teams that are even in the conversation of potentially being a bona fide cup contender - and will be for several years to come.
CONS: This would look like a slam dunk if not for the fact that there is a salary cap and the Leafs are soon going to have to pay top dollar to the trio of young stars they already have - Austin Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander. How does Tavares fit under the cap with these 3 youngsters and their cap hits? Would Tavares want to play on a team where he plays 2nd fiddle to Matthews? Could the Leafs still sign him then trade one of that young trio to clear up cap room? I have been joking for months that the Leafs will have all the cap room in the world to sign Tavares - but only on a 1-year deal. Come 2019 when Matthews and Marner start to cost a combined roughly $20 Million between them, it will be very hard to justify adding another player at $10-12 Million per year, which also handcuffs this team from fixing their much bigger weakness - defence.
PREDICTION: It says here that the New York Islanders new brass will try to convince Tavares to do what all other franchise players in their prime have done in this league before him - stay with the team that drafted him long-term and sign an 8-year deal worth $88 Million per year for a cap hit of $11M annually. Thus making him the 2nd-highest paid player in the NHL behind only Connor McDavid (8 years, $100M - Cap Hit of $12.5M) of the Edmonton Oilers.