Tavares says goodbye to Islanders, chooses the hometown Maple Leafs


John Tavares is going home. It sounds like it was a difficult decision for him to make. Shortly after Russia pulled a huge upset of Spain in the World Cup, he told the Islanders he was leaving via The Athletic.

The heavy rumors were true about Toronto last night. The 27-year old center is officially a Maple Leaf. He agreed to a seven-year contract worth a reported $77 million with his hometown team. He released a couple of tweets to the Islanders and the fans, who are not taking this bad news well.

It’s impossible to put yourself in Tavares’ shoes. He had six teams bidding for him after narrowing down his list. I’m sure the Islanders, Bruins, Lightning, Sharks, and Stars all made great offers. Ultimately, it came down to the Mississauga, Ontario native wanting to go home and play for the team he rooted for as a kid. He’ll turn 28 in September before his first game as a Leaf.

I can understand why he chose them. He described it in his tweet, hinting at a strong core that features Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Nazem Kadri. That’s a scary thought when you add the talented Tavares to Toronto, who don’t care that they lost James van Riemsdyk to the Flyers and Tyler Bozak to the Blues. They also have a good supporting cast that includes Patrick Marleau, Zach Hyman, Connor Brown, Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Nikita Zaitsev and Frederik Andersen.

If the Leafs can figure out a way to improve the blueline, they’ll be serious contenders. Andersen had to do a lot for them last season. The pressure is on coach Mike Babcock to deliver now that they added Tavares to a young nucleus. No more first round exits.

As far as the Islanders are concerned, what can they do? The remaining list of free agents isn’t good. They’ll save money losing Tavares after making a max offer of eight years at over $11 million per season. It’s not like he gave the Leafs a discount. Eleven million is not chunk change.

The former Islanders first overall pick in 2009 finishes with 272 goals, 349 assists, totaling 621 points in 669 career games. In three postseasons, he went 11-11-22 over 24 playoff games. Hardly enough in the time he’s been there. That had to be a factor in his decision despite new management doing the right thing for a change, bringing in Lou Lamoriello, who hired Stanley Cup winning coach Barry Trotz.

With uncertainty in net and on defense, it had to impact Tavares’ decision. Even following a great draft that saw them net future NHLers Oliver Wahlstrom, Noah Dobson and Bode Wilde, it wasn’t enough to sway Tavares. The Isles have a good pipeline with Kieffer Bellows and possibly Linus Soderstrom a year away. The goalie will take longer to develop than the scoring forward and son of former NHLer Brian Bellows.

The interesting thing is the Islanders don’t necessarily have a bad roster. Featuring Calder winner Mathew Barzal, who only put up 85 points (22-63-85) to lead the team in scoring and assists, the heir apparent is ready to lead a team that still includes Josh Bailey, Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, Anthony Beauvillier, Casey Cizikas, and Jordan Eberle.

The back end needs work. However, they were able to re-sign Thomas Hickey to a affordable four-year deal worth an average of $2.5 million. That’s great value for a underrated player. Assuming Calvin de Haan leaves, they still have Nick Leddy, Johnny Boychuk, Ryan Pulock, Adam Pelech, and Scott Mayfield. Pulock is a restricted free agent due a raise following a breakout season. He went 10-22-32 in 68 games. Sebastian Aho could challenge Mayfield for the sixth spot.

Maybe having a better coach will help. Trotz has a good defensive system, which his former team executed to perfection to stun the hockey would in winning the Stanley Cup. Holding players accountable and making them more defensively responsible should be beneficial.

Don’t rule out Lamoriello making a trade for either Ryan O’Reilly or Jeff Skinner. I’m sure he’s working the phones with so much cap space available. I wonder if he’ll look to dump Boychuk, who can’t stay healthy. Andrew Ladd could be another candidate if they can find a team to take the contract.

Finding a starting goalie is important. It’s not going to be Christopher Gibson starting on Opening Night. I don’t believe Thomas Greiss is starter material. It’s slim pickings. Perhaps they’ll go and sign Steve Mason after the Canadiens didn’t waste any time getting rid of him.

It’ll be interesting to see the direction the Islanders go in. Don’t forget 40-goalscorer Lee is unrestricted in 2019. They need to get him locked up. The summer just became more interesting.

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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