The Islanders’ window to sign John Tavares to an extension opened on July 1, 2017.
Now, his career with the franchise that selected him first overall in the 2009 NHL Draft may end this July 1 when Tavares could become the most valuable unrestricted free agent to ever hit the open market.
Understand generational talents such as Tavares — think Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Wayne Gretzky in his prime, and Steven Stamkos — just don’t make it to the yearly July 1 deadline without a deal.
The Islanders’ ownership and general manager Garth Snow are clearly betting on themselves as they risked losing the organization’s most valuable asset for nothing by not moving Tavares by the Feb. 26 trade deadline.
Tavares has repeatedly said he hopes to remain an Islander. Snow has repeatedly said he envisions Tavares retiring an Islander. But the odds that Tavares departs increase daily as the July 1 opening of the free agent market approaches.
Here’s what you need to know about the situation:
What it’ll cost
It’s believed Tavares will garner around $10.5 million annually. There will be no hometown discount after completing a six-year, $33-million deal with the Islanders.
The case for Tavares staying
Tavares has been impressively tight-lipped about this process but he’s been waiting to see whether the Islanders finally will have some franchise stability. The team announced this season it’s planning on moving to a new arena at Belmont Park, built with hockey in mind, for the 2021-22 season. Tavares, in his own even-keel, monotone speaking manner, has expressed excitement over being a teammate of dynamic rookie center Mathew Barzal and anticipation over what he and Barzal can accomplish together. Plus, Tavares has a strong relationship with both Snow and coach Doug Weight, and seems to be comfortable as a Long Island resident.
The case for Tavares departing
Tavares will be 31 by the time the Islanders’ new arena is scheduled to open and potentially past his hockey prime. And while he may be excited about having Barzal as a teammate, it’s likely he’s not as impressed with how Snow has constructed the Islanders defensively. Snow, on the job since July 18, 2006, has certainly had time to build a strong team around his centerpiece but Tavares has played in just 24 playoff games over three appearances since his rookie season of 2009-10. Since the Islanders beat the Panthers in the first round in 2016 — the franchise’s first playoff series win since 1993 — they have missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons.
Possible landing spots for Tavares
Put another way, which team wouldn’t want Tavares? However, Tavares’ salary cap hit, his presumed preference for being as low key as possible and his stated desire to play for a winner would seem to eliminate some destinations. The Sharks, always in the playoff hunt, seem like a logical landing spot as a Joe Thornton replacement. The chance to play with Vladimir Tarasenko with the Blues may also be very attractive. The expansion Vegas Golden Knights are doing pretty well so far but, based on how far they get in the playoffs, could envision Tavares as a final piece to a Stanley Cup team. The Red Wings are likely to be active bidders as well and the Canucks, losing Henrik and Daniel Sedin to retirement may try to woo Tavares also.
Places Tavares won’t go
Much like Stamkos last year, way too much has been written about Tavares, from Mississauga, Ontario, wanting to play for his hometown Maple Leafs. Beyond the fact the Maple Leafs must set aside money for Auston Matthews, Tavares likely wants nothing to do with the media cauldron that is Toronto. Ditto for Montreal. And, sorry Rangers fans, Tavares isn’t headed to Broadway.
How the Islanders can save (some) face
If the Islanders come to the conclusion that Tavares does not intend to return, there’s still time to acquire some assets for him. First, the Islanders could trade the rights to Tavares to a team that believes it can strike a deal with him prior to July 1. In this scenario, the return will not be nearly as great as what the Islanders could have brought back by the Feb. 26 deadline. For instance, the Rangers actually traded the rights to Hall of Fame defenseman Brian Leetch to the Oilers just prior to the free agent market opening in 2003 in exchange for backup goalie Jussi Markkanen and a fourth-round pick. In that instance, the Rangers wound up re-signing Leetch, as well. Another option would be a sign-and-trade, much more common to the NBA than the NHL. The benefit to Tavares here is that he could sign an eight-year deal with the Islanders while the Collective Bargaining Agreement limits him to a maximum seven-year deal with another team. Plus, the Islanders should get a decent package back for him in this scenario.