John Tavares leaves Islanders, heads home to Toronto
Isles captain departs after spending his first nine seasons with New York
John Tavares needed to post only one picture on his Twitter account to explain the grip the Maple Leafs have had on him since he was a youngster growing up in suburban Toronto.
The photo featured a not-yet-10-year-old Tavares in bed, asleep on a pillowcase and under a blanket adorned with Maple Leafs logos, and accompanied by a note that read: “Not everyday you can live a childhood dream.”
In bidding farewell to the New York Islanders, where he was the captain and face of the franchise since being drafted with the No. 1 pick in 2009, Tavares chose Toronto and agreed to a seven-year, $77 million contract about an hour after the NHL’s free-agency signing period opened Sunday.
The 27-year-old Tavares spent last week assessing offers from the Islanders, San Jose, Toronto, Dallas, Tampa Bay and Boston. He called his decision the toughest of his life in choosing between staying in New York or taking “a calculated leap of faith into an opportunity I believe will be special to me and my family.”
In the end, he was unable to avoid the lure Toronto presented, and informed the Maple Leafs he had chosen them late Saturday night.
“I just felt this opportunity was just so rare, the timing of where the organization’s at, and obviously the connection being from here,” Tavares said. “I really believe there’s a big window here to win, to be part of something special. It just felt right.”
Tavares, whose 306 points over the past four seasons rank sixth among players over that span, was the highest-profile player to hit the market since the Minnesota Wild signed both Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to matching 13-year, $98 million contracts.
Tavares’ signing has the potential of shifting the balance of power in the Eastern Conference.
He joins a young, talented group that already features Auston Matthews, the 2016 draft’s No. 1 pick, a veteran presence in Patrick Marleau and a top coach in Mike Babcock.
The Leafs, who haven’t won a championship since their last Stanley Cup Final appearance in 1967, have made strides in three years since Babcock’s arrival. Toronto has made the playoffs in each of the past two seasons after qualifying just once in the previous 11. And yet, they have not advanced past the first round since 2004.
Tavares specifically referenced Matthews and 21-year-old center Mitchell Marner, who led the Leafs with 69 points last season as reasons to be optimistic.
“They’ve accomplished so much in such little time. You can only think about the trajectory they’re on, and that’s what gets me excited,” Tavares said.
The Islanders experienced struggles even with Tavares by qualifying for the playoffs just three times in nine seasons.
Now they face a daunting uphill climb minus their unquestioned leader and point-a-game producer. In a bid to retain Tavares, the team underwent an organizational makeover in recent months. They hired Lou Lamoriello as president of hockey operations and fresh Stanley Cup winner Barry Trotz as coach.
“The New York Islanders would like to thank John Tavares for everything he has done for the franchise throughout his nine seasons,” Lamoriello said in a statement released by the team. “We wish him and his family all the best.”
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