Lessons And Warnings From The John Tavares Saga

Former first overall pick John Tavares signed for $77 million with the Maple Leafs. -TL.com

You don’t have to go very far back to know this writer was one of many Devils fans who coveted former Islanders’ center John Tavares. As we all know, the former first overall pick signed a seven-year, $77 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs. While I have my reservations on how much signing Tavares elevates the Maple Leafs into Stanley Cup contention, I can attest to the notion that this destroys New York’s hopes of returning to relevance any time soon. Naturally, many Islanders faithful are asking a question that may become more relevant for the broader league—and with their young core, for the Devils too— will the Tavares signing entice teams to move franchise players in their contract years more eagerly after seeing how he strung the Islanders along?

Islanders leadership—GM Garth Snow, head coach Doug Weight, owners Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky— made clear they wanted to re-sign Tavares, but respected his decision to test free agency, and cited his value to the organization’s identity for not trading their former captain. Tavares sounded out the usual platitudes of an NHL soon-to-be free agent—he loved his time on the island, but was focused entirely on the 2017-18 campaign.

Despite criticism from fans that Snow failed to properly build around his franchise center, Tavares reportedly had a very good relationship with the former Islanders general manager. He was also close with former head coach Doug Weight, who housed Tavares early in his career. Owners Ledecky and Malkin made it clear to Tavares that they were committed to investing in the franchise by securing land in Belmont for a new arena, and privately financing this establishment in full. Tavares even broke his radio silence on that topic when he said, per Newsday, “As time goes on and you take time to think about things, look at the big picture, it’s very positive for the organization, for us, for the fans.”

After a year of empty promises, Tavares winds up jetting to the Maple Leafs for “this reason and that reason” that are supposed to soften your stance on the star center’s decision.

Far different from other professional sports leagues like the NBA, NHL players often stick with the teams by which they were drafted. This offseason alone has seen defensemen like Drew Doughty, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, John Carlson, along with Sharks forward Logan Couture each commit to their respective teams for eight more seasons. Veteran faces of the league like Steven Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, and Evgeni Malkin (just to mention a few) have all remained with the teams by which they were drafted. While the Devils are no stranger to seeing franchise-caliber players leave for nothing (Niedermayer, Parise, Kovalchuk), the NHL as a whole rarely sees franchise talents like Tavares make such dramatic shifts in their careers.

Speculation is looming that Tavares’ actions could start prompting other teams into moving assets that don’t commit long-term going into the final season of their current contracts. The Columbus Blue Jackets for example, are in a similar deadlock with star forward Artemi Panarin. Granted Panarin and Tavares are two different types of players, the similarities like how valuable they are/were to their respective teams is evident. This also makes the situation with Ottawa and franchise defenseman Erik Karlsson relevant to this topic, whose current contract expires next summer, and (after being totally unwilling to sign a long-term extension with the organization) is guaranteed to be dealt in the coming weeks.

Star players with upcoming expiring contracts are due to cash in big over the next 1-2 years. -NHL.com

The 2019 free agent class is currently very deep, featuring names like Tyler Seguin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Blake Wheeler, Joe Pavelski, Jordan Eberle, and Matt Duchene. While I’m sure most of these players will wind up re-signing with their current teams, any of the aforementioned players would set their respective teams back if they left for nothing. Don’t think general managers aren’t taking note of how the Tavares situation played out, which could cause teams to take this firmer stance on players with expiring contracts.

With Taylor Hall’s contract expiring in 2020, he cannot officially be signed to an extension until July 1, 2019. Keeping the Tavares situation in mind, this could radically change Ray Shero’s approach to handling any reluctance Taylor Hall might have to commit long-term going into the 2019-2020 season—especially if the Devils take a step or two back in 2018-2019. Just to clarify, this isn’t an effort to fuel the ongoing frustrations of Shero’s quiet offseason. Shero seems to be betting Hall’s prime on the next offseason plus the continued improvement of the team’s young core; a commendable bet in the opinion of this writer. However, when you consider Garth Snow’s failure to build around Tavares, and the possibility of New Jersey going into next season unimproved, it could cause the certainty of Taylor Hall’s future in New Jersey to take some wild (and potentially unfavorable) turns.

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