Islanders fans might never forgive John Tavares for leaving them two summers ago, and certainly had not done so by the time he took the ice for the Maple Leafs at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum on Wednesday night.
But now that we are deep into Year Two of this divorce, it is fair to say that at least from the perspective of the teams and players, both sides are living happily ever after, thank you.
Tavares has a contract worth $11 million per season, is playing for his hometown team, was named captain and is coming off career highs in goals and points. He even welcomed his first child, a son, two months ago.
The Islanders reached the second round of the playoffs last season and after Wednesday night’s 5-4 victory are on a 13-game points streak, going 12-0-1 in that stretch.
“When I left, I never wished anything poorly on anybody,” Tavares told Newsday after a morning meeting. “I just made a decision that I thought was the best for myself and my career.
“Great bunch of guys over there, and obviously really good hockey players who have done a great job in the time since I’ve left. I think it’s a credit to them staying with it, their work ethic, the type of people they are and the type of hockey players they are.”
Tavares missed seven games this autumn with a broken finger, so he has played in only 13 of the Leafs’ 20 games. He has six goals and seven assists, tallying one of each on Wednesday — each time getting booed for the effort.
He said his comfort level in Toronto is mostly complete now.
“Once you spend more time in a place, the more comfortable you get with your surroundings and your daily life and what comes with it, so certainly there’s that,” he said.
Tavares twice visited the Coliseum last season. In February, he was bombarded with fans’ vitriol throughout a 6-1 loss. In April, the booing subsided a bit and he scored the winning goal in a playoff-berth-clinching 2-1 victory.
Homecoming III — his only return this regular season — was more like the April experience. He was booed during warmups, booed when the starters were announced, booed when he lined up for faceoffs and booed whenever he touched the puck.
Fans cheered when Scott Mayfield leveled him with a check.
Barely two minutes in, they reprised a chant from last season: “We don’t need you!”
When Mathew Barzal scored, they chanted, “Bar-zy’s better!” When Anthony Beauvillier made it 2-0, they returned to, “We don’t need you!”
After a gorgeous setup pass by Barzal on the fourth Islanders goal, it was back to “Bar-zy’s better!”
Before the game, Tavares said, “I spent a lot of time here, so there’s still a lot of memories coming back. I see a lot of people that made a big impact on my life.”
No matter how he is viewed by fans, he still has many friends on Long Island. After the game he lingered outside the dressing room, visiting with former teammates and other Islanders employees.
Asked whether his experience last season affected how he views his nine seasons as an Islander, he said, “No, not really. It’s a very passionate fan base that loves their Islanders. So I just try to go out there and play.
“I think I’ve said a lot about the impact playing here made on my life and how much I enjoyed it. So it is what it is.”
Said Barzal, the team’s biggest post-Tavares star, “Johnny is a great friend of a lot of guys in here. I looked up to him my rookie year and I learned a lot from him, so there’s none of this hatred the media sometimes [portrays].”
Tavares is so good at hockey that it would be silly to argue the Islanders are better off without him. But it also is difficult at this point to argue against that now-familiar chant.
“We don’t need you!”