On the day that Air Canada Centre was renamed Scotiabank Arena, the Leafs generously opened the vault. To the tune of $77 million to lure John Tavares, the crown jewel of the free agent market, to Toronto.
The acquisition of the 27-year-old Tavares, the two-time Hart Trophy finalist who had been the face of the New York Islanders franchise for nine seasons, immediately thrusts the Leafs into the upper echelon of teams that can contend for the Stanley Cup.
With a potent top-two centre duo of Auston Matthews and Tavares, complemented by Nazem Kadri as the pivot on the third line, the Leafs’ depth down the middle is as powerful as that of any team in the league.
As difficult as it was for Tavares – the five-time All-Star Game participant – to leave Long Island, the opportunity to play in his hometown, for the team that he grew up idolizing, was ultimately too tantalizing to forego. The man nicknamed JT took to Twitter to break news of his monumental deal, first thanking the long-time Islanders fans, then tweeting a grade-school aged photo of himself wrapped in Maple Leafs-emblazoned beddings.
Not everyday you can live a childhood dream pic.twitter.com/YUTKdfMALl
— John Tavares (@91Tavares) July 1, 2018
And while a contract worth $11 million per season over seven years is indeed an abundance of riches, getting the maximum dollar amount wasn’t the priority for Tavares. The most coveted high-profile free agent since Scott Niedermayer thirteen years ago, Tavares declined to sign with the San Jose Sharks, who had entered the bidding war with an offer worth $13 million a year.
But the promise of the younger nucleus of the Leafs’ roster was too intriguing to pass up, for JT, when gauging his best chance to win a championship. Matthews will be 21 years old when the season starts, the same age as Tavares’ projected right winger Mitch Marner. William Nylander is 22. Toronto’s best defenceman, Morgan Rielly is 24.
Indeed Toronto has the foundation of youth that provides a more than ample opportunity to parade the Stanley Cup down Bay Street during Tavares’ projected seven-year tenure.
Conversely, the Sharks, while boasting a formidable Cup-contending lineup of their own, are led by a nucleus that includes Brent Burns (aged 33), Marc-Edouard Vlasic (31), Logan Couture (29) and Joe Pavelski (34). The window is shrinking in San Jose for the chance to claim hockey’s Holy Grail.
Instead, Tavares neatly slides into a Leafs lineup that is on the cusp of its prime, and he does so without bearing the expectancy of being a hometown savior; general manage Kyle Dubas declined to discuss any establishment of a team captaincy for next season.
Rather, JT arrives as a complementary player who can distribute the offensive firepower among the likes of Marner, and Matthews and Nylander.
“I think you realize how hard it is to win in this league so you need good players and talent around you,” Tavares said before a gathering of media reporters on Canada Day at his newly-minted dressing room stall. “And certainly I think, with how young that group is here, you’d like to think the trajectory that the team and the organization is on is a really good one, and will give you a lot of good opportunities to be able to do that.
I don’t have to come in and try to do everything, I just try to be myself, work as hard as I can, commit myself every day and be the best player that i can be,” he said.
Not so long ago, Toronto was a league laughingstock where free agents signed as the last stop before a dismal end to their careers.
But now that the franchise has a solid blueprint, and a proven commitment to winning, the allure of playing for the Leafs has become endearing enough to snare one of the NHL’s best players in Tavares, perhaps as a catalyst to ending over a half-century of Cup-less misery.
In 2016, Rob wrote “Hockey’s Enforcers: A Dying Breed”, now available at Chapters and Indigo stores everywhere.