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Islanders’ John Tavares to Toronto Maple Leafs? Talk heats up

John Tavares #91 of the New York Islanders

John Tavares #91 of the New York Islanders reaches for the puck in the third period against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Barclays Center on Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

SUNRISE, Florida — It’s started again, the John Tavares-to-Toronto talk. But when has it ever really died down?

Tavares has said plenty about wanting to be an Islander beyond the expiration of his current contract in the summer of 2018 and the Islanders will be putting the full-court press on to get Tavares signed next summer, specifically July 1, when the team can officially sign its captain to an extension.

But until then — and especially so if the Islanders continue to wallow near the bottom of the Eastern Conference — the talk will continue unabated, with headlines like this one in the Toronto Star last weekend:

“Leafs’ best shot at Tavares in sight.”

“For the fans up here, it’s like, ‘Why wouldn’t you want to come back?’” said Gord Stellick, a one-time Leafs general manager who has worked in Toronto radio for decades. “It’s the way I imagine Celtics fans, or Yankee fans, or Cowboy fans feel about free agents. What would be better? Add in that you’re talking about a player who’s from here and it really gets people going.”

Perhaps the only stretch when Toronto folks gave Tavares a break in recent memory came last year, when Tavares’ childhood teammate, Steven Stamkos, declined to sign an extension with the Lightning after the 2014-15 season and chose to head towards last July 1 while keeping everyone guessing.

After a few meetings with teams in the five-day free agent contact window, Stamkos signed an eight-year, $68-million deal with the Lightning the day before unrestricted free agency began, breaking some hearts in his hometown.

“Going through things like that where it might be the only time in your career where you have a chance to come as close as I did to becoming a free agent, that was the path I decided to go. I can’t sit here and say it was easy,” Stamkos told Newsday. “I think Johnny’s a smart guy, he realizes until you’re signed to a long-term deal, regardless of which team you’re on, if you’re from the Toronto area there’s going to be rumors.”

And ever was it thus, even in the days before Twitter. Darryl Sittler grew up on the other side of Ontario but was revered as a “local” boy during his Leaf heyday in the 1970s. Dave Andreychuk, from nearby Hamilton, was traded to the Leafs in 1992 and had a successful four-year run, helping the Leafs to consecutive Western Conference finals along with Doug Gilmour, another local product.

“We all want to play for our hometown team. Trust me,” Andreychuk, now the Lightning’s VP of Community Affairs, said. “I’m fortunate I was there during the good times. But they’re just passionate. They want you to win as badly as you want to win.”

Speaking of Twitter, Stamkos stirred things up mightily last season by liking a tweet that during the season referenced him and the Leafs. It caused a firestorm that lingered long after he signed with the Lightning.

“While we were in training camp there (for the World Cup in September), we were sitting next to each other in the locker room and he was talking to some of the media there about the summer and putting it behind him,” Tavares said. “They started asking me some questions and he just blurted out, ‘Don’t like any tweets!’

“You just try to control what you can control. That’s what I picked up from him. He always expressed his feelings, how much he’s enjoyed playing in Tampa and that’s obviously a big reason why he signed. Sometimes it can get a little more complicated, especially with the CBA now, things don’t just get done overnight. It’s a process. He went through that. For myself, I just worry about getting better and not worry about what people say.”

Pat Brisson, Tavares’ high-powered agent, sat with Islanders GM Garth Snow at a recent game in Barclays Center. Despite the ugly start to this season, Tavares hasn’t wavered in his feeling that he’s the leader of the team and it’s on his head to make sure they improve year after year, despite losing longtime teammates and close friends Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen to free agency this past summer.

And no one can know what Tavares really thinks about the prospect of playing for the Leafs and being the focus of a whole city rather than the quieter slice of life he experiences playing for the Islanders. He does not hang out in New York City much, if at all, preferring the slower life on Long Island where he can focus on hockey.

“You definitely need someone who’s going to come here and kick [butt], so to speak,” Stellick said. “You want someone who’s going to own the town, the way Gilmour did when he came here.”

The talk will continue, online, on radio, in print. It’s inevitable. Stamkos has admitted it stressed him out at times last season. Could that happen to Tavares?

“If he ever had any questions I’d always be happy to talk to him, but he’s already starting to deal with it, he’s said some things,” Stamkos said. “You can only control your mindset coming to the rink and how you play and I’ve known him long enough to know he doesn’t have a problem with that no matter what his contract situation is.”

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