John Tavares was not known for showing emotion during his nine seasons with the Islanders. But his voice trembled repeatedly, if subtly, on Sunday while he discussed his now-former organization.
As the free-agent market opened, the Islanders’ worst fear was realized when their franchise player, selected first overall in 2009, accepted a seven-year, $77-million deal with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs.
“It was really gut-wrenching,” Tavares said on a conference call.
“I was drafted first by the Islanders, they believed in me and put everything into me,” he added, stopping briefly to collect himself. “They were so supportive for who I am today. You develop such strong feelings of one place. My time in New York, I was as invested as anything I’ve ever done.”
Yet the pull of playing for the Maple Leafs proved overwhelming. Tavares, who will turn 28 on Sept. 20, tweeted a childhood photo of himself — he guessed between ages 6-8 — asleep under his Maple Leafs blanket. He also used social media to send out a thank you to Islanders fans for their support.
Tavares, who met with the Maple Leafs, Islanders, Sharks, Bruins, Lightning and Stars between Monday and Wednesday in the Los Angeles CAA office of his agent, Pat Brisson, and then returned to Toronto to weigh his options, said his choice came down to the Islanders and Maple Leafs.
The Islanders are at Toronto on Dec. 29. The Maple Leafs play at Barclays Center on Feb. 28 and at the refurbished Nassau Coliseum on April 1.
The Islanders, the only team able to offer him an eight-year deal through Saturday, did so at a reported $11 million per season before upping that to $11.25 million. The Sharks reportedly also were very aggressive with an offer of $13 million per season.
“Once I got into the offseason and the feelings of the season started to dissipate and you get over the disappointment of the past year, you got to the point where it felt like the only one time in my career where I could go experience what the other possibilities are,” Tavares said. “Once I got to the interview period, it became very emotional, very heavy.
“Where the Maple Leafs are as a team and the combination of the feeling of being from here and what an opportunity it could be, I felt it could be right,” said Tavares, who made the playoffs only three times in nine seasons with the Islanders, winning just one series. “It wasn’t an opportunity I wanted to pass up. It’s the hardest thing I’ve gone through because of what the Islanders mean to me.”
The Islanders were able to offer Tavares an extension starting July 1, 2017, and kept him through the trade deadline on Feb. 26. Tavares did have a no-trade clause in his six-year, $33-million deal, but former general manager Garth Snow also was confident of retaining him.
“At that time, I did not have any feelings for playing for any other team,” Tavares said. “I was invested each and every day in being the captain of the Islanders. Garth told me he wasn’t going to trade me and I wasn’t going to ask for a trade because I didn’t think I was going to leave.”
The Islanders hired Lou Lamoriello, coincidentally the former Maple Leafs GM, as their new president May 22, and Lamoriello relieved Snow and coach Doug Weight of their duties June 5. Barry Trotz, who won the Stanley Cup with the Capitals, was hired as the Isles’ new coach June 21.
“I think Lou was tremendous,” Tavares said of Lamoriello’s role in the negotiations. “The whole process and his vision for the Islanders, I think he’ll be great for the team. As time went on, I felt like I owed it to myself to see what else was out there.”
Tavares finished his Islanders tenure with 272 goals and 349 assists in 669 regular-season games. Now he leaves behind a jilted fan base.
“I didn’t expect people to be thrilled,” he said. “I made a decision I felt was right for me. It’s up to everyone to have their feelings on it. I did the best I could, I have no regrets about that. I just wish I could’ve done more.”