Waiting for an announcement on the John Tavares saga Saturday night was like waiting for a goal in the second overtime of a playoff game, which made it all the more difficult.
It sure was a different vibe from the one conjured by the Islanders and their star center late on the night of April 24, 2016. Back then, Tavares tied Game 6 of the playoff series against the Panthers in the final minute of regulation, then won it at 10:41 of the second overtime. It clinched the franchise’s only series victory in the past 25 years.
What was most remarkable about it was that, shortly after the shining moment of his stellar career, he recognized that he was not the story. “First and foremost,” he said that night, “it’s for our fan base. They’ve been dying for this.
“No question, a lot of us haven’t been here that long. But some of us have been here a while. Fransie [Nielsen] I think has been here 10 years, I’ve been here seven. Kyle [Okposo] has been here eight or nine. We had to get over this hump.”
Of the fans, he added: “They’ve deserved it. They’ve waited, they’ve been through some tough times. To be part of that is a good feeling right now.”
For that same fan base, following the drama Saturday was a queasy feeling. It was hard to imagine that Tavares, who always has loved being an Islander as much as anyone since the glory days, was on the brink of leaving through free agency, as Nielsen and Okposo did.
Long Islanders knew what was at stake: The Islanders’ one advantage in the bidding process, the right to offer one extra year on a contract, would expire at midnight. That did not mean the team would be out of the running, but it sure would diminish its chances of retaining its captain. So every minute that passed without a resolution made stomachs churn just a little more.
The sad part is, it was unnecessary tension and avoidable tension. Each side stumbled its way into the sticky situation.
The Islanders knew how much Tavares always has loved Long Island and has appreciated what that crest on the front of his jersey means to people who live here. But management also knew how much he wanted a tangible chance to shoot for the Stanley Cup. Winning that one playoff series was nice, but the decision-makers never improved the team enough to make it a slam-dunk decision for Tavares to stay.
For his part, Tavares could have made life easier for the team and fan base. Word around the team was that he emphatically asked not to be dealt at the trading deadline when he might have brought a handsome return (and possibly changed the course of the playoffs). It led the Islanders to stand pat, which put them at risk of getting nothing for the best asset they have had since they dealt Pat LaFontaine (for star Pierre Turgeon and significant other talent).
As it was, everyone involved was holding their breath and trying to grab whatever perspective they could.
One way to look at it was that this was not like LeBron James leaving the Cavaliers the first time, when a departure transformed a title contender into a hopeless also-ran. The Islanders have been a mediocre team at best with Tavares. They were going to have to do substantial building regardless of whether he was there.
It also makes the draft last week appear that much more important. Many hockey analysts said the Islanders made out like bandits, considering where they were choosing. At the very least, it was a sign that Lou Lamoriello did not get panicked to make bad trades just to try to impress Tavares. In other words, he did not make the same mistake the Nets did in trying to keep Deron Williams.
But it still was a tough night that made the 2016 second overtime seem like centuries ago, and made a person wonder who might score the momentous goal the next time the Islanders need it.