This sure did not feel like the beginning of the end. The way John Tavares got the Islanders going with the first two goals of the first home game of the season seemed a much different kind of portent. To quote from the last selection that organist Paul Cartier played before the puck drop, “This Could Be the Start of Something Big.”
Which is, of course, the way Tavares wants it to feel.
He does not want this season to be a referendum on his impending free agency. He does not want it to be a wistful nostalgia tour. He does not want to leave, either, although that is a possibility. He wants to do what he has done ever since he got here, and that is give the Islanders everything he has.
When Tavares says his contract situation is not and will not be a distraction, you tend to believe him. “Some people look like it doesn’t bother them, they say it doesn’t bother them, but it bothers them,” coach Doug Weight said, adding that Tavares is just a different kind of guy. “He’s focused on his next shift, he’s focused on the game and how to prepare and things like that. He’s good at it, he’s a pro and we’re lucky to have him.”
How much longer they will have him is an open question, with a unique twist. It depends mostly on them showing they have the chops to provide a suitable home rink and stable future.
His situation is different from the odd case of Travis Hamonic two years ago, when he played hard for the Islanders after asking to be traded (the request later was rescinded, then he was traded anyway). Tavares is looking for reasons to stay. Unlike many free-agent-to-be scenarios, this one is not a cash dispute. Instead of Tavares having to prove he is worth an investment of roughly $10 million a season by the franchise, the franchise must prove itself worthy of him.
In the meantime, he will play hard and will play very well. He will love wearing the “C” near his shoulder and the Islanders crest on his chest. He will be honored to be part of the continuum, having been so impressed by being included in an all-time Islanders captains retreat recently that he called the experience “surreal.” Everything about the franchise means something to him, such as passing Bob Ny strom (who was on hand Saturday night to witness it) for eighth place on the team’s all-time goal list.
“Bobby has got one of the biggest goals ever here. He’s also a great person who means a lot to the franchise and to the community. Any time you do something like that, you’ve got to pinch yourself, knowing what he accomplished,” Tavares said, having scored another goal in the 6-3 win over the Sabres, giving him 237, one shy of Bob Bourne.
The first one Saturday was particularly huge in that it put the Islanders on the right track after a clunker of a loss in Columbus on Friday. Plus, it came off a beautiful feed from Jordan Eberle. The latter was asked how he needs to adjust to play with Tavares and said, interestingly, “For me, I don’t really need to. He plays a similar style to me. The speed he goes at, I’m comfortable with. He sees the ice. I think it’s only going to get better the more we play together.”
That combination gives you the feeling that the team ought to make the playoffs, at least. “We like our hockey club and we obviously believe in ourselves,” Tavares said. “We’ve got a lot of growing to do, but certainly, we want to do something special.”
To keep him, the franchise needs to do something special. It must commit to surrounding him with more top-quality players such as Eberle. It must figure out a way to protect him by giving him a solid sheet of ice. It needs to show that it has enough credibility to pull off a deal for a new arena, assuring him that he and his teammates will not be dispatched to Seattle.
For his part, Tavares will do what he always does: give the team everything he has. Instead of a goodbye, this season could be the start of something.