HARD HITS: A Chaotic Return for Tavares, Sean Avery, and the Islanders

Unless you were living in a cave or on vacation without WiFi, Thursday night marked the long anticipated return of John Tavares to Long Island. The former Islanders captain got what was expected from irate fans when the Maple Leafs visited Nassau Coliseum for the game of the week off the Meadowbrook Parkway.

While the end result of the game wasn’t too surprising considering the circumstances- an Islanders 6-1 laugher over the Leafs, who played for the second time in two days, the real laughs began prior to the opening face-off in Uniondale. The festivities included several Islander fans marking the special occasion by burning Tavares number 91 jerseys outside.

Considering how his ninth and final season ended with Tavares taking some time before choosing to come home and play for the home town Maple Leafs, who he grew up idolizing in pajamas, you knew the reaction would be catastrophic for the big game on Feb. 28. Even though I was actually out that way with my Dad not too far from the game to see a terrific show by Procol Harum at the Theatre in Westbury, we still had time to listen to the beginning of the game on Hofstra radio. It didn’t disappoint.

I thought the radio voice of the Islanders, Chris King did a good job of explaining what was going on before and once Tavares stepped on the ice for his first shift at the 18-second mark. It didn’t take long for the boo birds to rain down for Tavares, who said all the right things about his return. Obviously, he didn’t want it to be about him, but it was. The delirious fans made it personal due to feeling the once idolized former 2009 number one overall pick, strung them along before breaking their hearts by choosing Toronto.

For someone like me, it’s a bit different. I have no personal attachment to the team or the player, who’s performed very well in his first year as a Leaf. However, I can see both sides of the heated debate that continues in bars, arenas and on social media. No matter who you root for, everyone has weighed in.

I’ll be perfectly honest. In all my years rooting for the Rangers, I’ve never experienced the kind of hurt Islander and Devil fans have gone through. At least not when it comes to drafting and developing a player who became a fan favorite, only to leave via free agency for another team. As much as losing Mark Messier hurt following ’97, it wasn’t that bad. He wasn’t hated, but revered by the Garden Faithful for delivering a Stanley Cup. He was cheered loudly in his return as a Canuck and cried during a video tribute prior to scoring on close buddy Mike Richter on a breakaway.

The same can be echoed for Brian Leetch and Adam Graves. Both traded with Leetch treated like crap by former GM Glen Sather. He didn’t even have the courage to ask Leetch if he would be open to a deal and then traded him to Toronto on his birthday. He still doesn’t have much of a relationship with Sather, who old school fans like me hate for such disrespect. It should’ve been handled better.

You can’t even compare the recent trades of Mats Zuccarello or Kevin Hayes to that of Tavares leaving the Islanders high and dry. Trades are different. Especially when you know it’s coming. When a star player signs with another team, all bets are off.

I feel strongly that former Islanders Team President and GM Garth Snow is largely responsible for why Tavares decided to leave for a new chapter. Had the organization been run better over the near decade he was there, he could’ve stayed. Without his heroics against the Panthers in an emotional first round win during the 2016 NHL Playoffs, the Islanders would still be without a series victory since their feel good run to the Eastern Conference Final in ’93. He was clutch scoring the game-tying goal and double overtime winner to lead the Isles to the second round.

This is the franchise’s best player since Pierre Turgeon. Sadly, he was never the same following that disgraceful cheap shot by Dale Hunter after he scored. Turgeon didn’t last long eventually winding up in Montreal for Kirk Muller, who held out during a dark era of Islanders hockey that featured some mind boggling decisions by the front office.

At least Tavares was a New York Islander for nine years. In 669 games spent between Long Island and Brooklyn, he produced 272 goals with 349 assists for a total of 621 points as an Islander. The center finished third for the Hart Trophy twice in the MVP race. He was a great player, who scored 30-or-more goals three times while eclipsing 80 points twice. Over a point-per-game in three seasons, he averaged a shade under that (0.93 PPG) for his Islanders career.

Unfortunately, the team didn’t have great success with Tavares, only making the postseason three times. That couldn’t have helped. Even with new boss Lou Lamoriello naming himself the GM and hiring Stanley Cup winning coach Barry Trotz away from the Capitals, it was too late.

Did Tavares lie when he told the media that he wanted to stay? Was he lying to the reporters that covered him and the fans? I don’t think it was intentional. Sometimes, things change. Once you let a player get to unrestricted free agency, anything can happen. Just ask Devils resident Hasan about turncoats Bobby Holik or Scott Gomez deciding to switch allegiances and cross the Hudson rivalry to the Rangers. They certainly heard it from the crowd. Particularly Holik, who was never shy about opening his mouth. Ultimately, the Devils had the last laugh winning the franchise’s third Cup in ’03 while Holik and the Rangers missed the playoffs. He didn’t last long on Broadway, bought out following the lockout.

Scott Niedermayer won three Cups with the Devils. A core piece who eventually replaced Scott Stevens as team captain, the former Norris winner left New Jersey to play with younger brother Rob Niedermayer and the Ducks. That also didn’t sit well with Devil fans due to the 2003 Stanley Cup their team won in seven games, where Jean-Sebastien Giguere was chosen as the Conn Smythe winner despite being from the losing Mighty Ducks. Many Devils fans felt Niedermayer deserved it for an outstanding playoffs. But they had a few candidates, which is probably why Giguere was chosen by the media. It was more a tribute to the team coached by Pat Burns (gone too soon). Zach Parise is just as hated as Tavares in Newark.

I think when you look at it without any bias, you can certainly understand why fans get frustrated when their team loses a special player. My brother was 13 when Messier left. He cried when our father told him he was gone. I was more numb and resigned to the fact he left due to Garden President Dave Checketts, who showed Patrick Ewing the money. When it came to Messier, they weren’t willing to keep paying for past performance. Then GM Neil Smith had a plan all along to sign Joe Sakic by front loading an offer sheet he signed. But the Avalanche matched. The rest is history.

Did Islander fans go too far the other night in how they treated Tavares? When it comes down to a silly few who tossed snakes and even a Tavares Islanders jersey at him as he was coming off following warmups, yes. That’s sheer lunacy. As far as the fans who burned Tavares jerseys on a grill outside, angry Cleveland fans did the same the first time LeBron James left to “take his talents” to South Beach in Miami. He played them, Bulls and Knicks fans for suckers. That was pretty low. I understood the animosity. At least he returned and delivered a championship to the Cavaliers before departing again to destroy the Lakers.

I think most of the Islander fans who came up with creative chants such as, “We Don’t Need You,” and “Past Your Bedtime,” made the atmosphere unique. As for the video tribute the Isles did for Tavares at the first stoppage, it was done in good taste. Unfortunately, while former teammates showed respect with stick taps to salute him, boos overwhelmed NYCB Live as the scoreboard showed Tavares’ first NHL goal, 500th career point and dramatic series clincher in sudden death. The highlights included some of Tavares’ community work for local charities.

It was a nice touch by Lamoriello and the organization. He didn’t want it to be personal. When it comes to fandom, that’s out the window. Fans are going to do what they’re going to do. At the end of the day, it is what it is.

The Isles remain a first place hockey club even following a disappointing 3-1 loss to the Caps on Friday night. They have one game at hand while both teams have an identical 81 points. Trotz has done a wonderful job establishing a winning culture on the Island.

A defensive system has resulted in great numbers for both Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss. One could wind up in the running for the Vezina awarded to the game’s top goalie. Tampa’s Andrei Vasilevskiy is the favorite with Montreal netminder Carey Price and possibly Golden Knight Marc-Andre Fleury in the mix.

The Islanders win games with tenacious checking and timely scoring. They don’t rely on one star player the way they used to with Tavares, who needs three points to set a new career high on the higher scoring Leafs. Mathew Barzal remains the leading scorer despite some inconsistency in his second season. Anders Lee still finishes around the net, but might not even reach 30 goals. Josh Bailey isn’t piling up assists or points the way he did with Tavares last year.

It’s the role of the supporting cast that has made the difference in the standings. Casey Cizikas continues to perform at a high level, getting a shorthanded goal in the 6-1 blowout. Brock Nelson and Valtteri Filppula have supplied center depth with all four pivots scoring in double digits. Matt Martin has been the same effective Islander he was with Cizikas and old Tavares buddy Cal Clutterbuck.

The interesting part is Lamoriello didn’t make a deal at the deadline. Obviously, he didn’t feel there was anyone worth acquiring. The Isles could use some help on the power play. A dicey area. Instead, Lou will go with the roster that’s got them here. Andrew Ladd just returned on Thursday, but missed Friday’s game. Scott Mayfield is back to help a blueline that includes emerging Ryan Pulock along with proven vets Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk. Newcomer Devon Toews has fit into the top six along with Adam Pelech.

It’s the depth players such as Jordan Eberle and the streaky Anthony Beauvillier that’ll help determine how far the Islanders go. Grizzled vets like Thomas Hickey and Leo Komarov are just as important. That’s how Lamoriello built the team. It’s how Trotz coaches it. They trust everyone.

That’s what the season is all about. Not the chaos that ensued on Thursday before nearly 14,000 strong full of hatred for a former star player. Should they be that upset with a first place club? Maybe not. However, the reaction was predictable. Even if controversial former Ranger Sean Avery weighed in with some very strong words.

In a way, he’s right. Tavares isn’t a bad guy. He never said or did anything wrong in his nine years as an Islander. I don’t mind Avery sticking up for Tavares. However, let’s be honest. When it comes to the Grate One as Larry Brooks coined in his Blueshirt days, it’s all about Sean Avery. So, while I do agree that the fans who called Tavares a snake and tossed stuff at him were wrong, that wasn’t every Islander fan. I didn’t care for the Dear John video either that was taped last summer. But I understand how upset they were.

I don’t know what Avery’s been up to. But what’s the deal with that hat? He also doesn’t look like the same guy. It looks like he had a facelift. Is he channeling Axl Rose? As much as I love Axl, come on. Come back to us Sean.

I can only imagine what haters are thinking. Avery defending Tavares when we all know he was no angel. As effective as of player as he was in the Big Apple, he was a locker room divider in other places including Hartford after John Tortorella banished him. There’s no love lost between them. I’ll never know the truth on what really happened. But I’ve heard some not so good things about Avery, which includes his strange marriage to model Hilary Rhoda. His relationship with his mother-in-law is estranged, which typifies Avery. That’s my final word on him.

Pro or con, everyone will remain with the same opinion on Thursday night. I actually felt sorry for Tavares. He handled all of it with class and true professionalism, which is what you expect from a well raised Canadian kid from Mississauga, Ontario.

Even if the game turned into a complete dud, it only makes things more interesting for the Spring. Imagine if the Islanders and Leafs were to meet. As it stands, it looks unrealistic with no such chance until the Conference Finals. Unless one of the two teams dropped out of the top three in their division, then they can’t face each other until the weather is nice and warm.

They’ll have one final act on April Fool’s Day at The Coliseum. That might not be as hostile. But can’t you just feel the love.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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1 Response to HARD HITS: A Chaotic Return for Tavares, Sean Avery, and the Islanders

  1. hasan4978 says:

    Parise was close in terms of him being homegrown and the general level he played at, not to mention stringing the fanbase along for eighteen months claiming he wanted to stay when he had no real intention to. Thing is at least he didn’t rub it in after the fact with North Stars pajamas, nor was there the whole trade deadline thing where JT asked not to be dealt, previous management foolishly obliged and he still left. Fortunately we were a contender Zach’s last year so there was no real should they or shouldn’t they trade him.

    Liked by 1 person

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