John Tavares poses with Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, left,...

John Tavares poses with Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, left, and general manager Kyle Dubas following a news conference in Toronto on Sunday. Credit: The Canadian Press via AP / Chris Young

John Tavares didn’t just follow his heart home to Toronto.

In his head, he envisioned the Maple Leafs as a perennial contender.

“I came here believing that we can win a Stanley Cup year in, year out,” the former Islanders captain said.

Tavares, 28, joined the Leafs as a free agent after nine seasons with the Isles. His departure for Toronto, his hometown team, caught many fans by surprise, prompting him to pen a 4,000-word apologetic essay in “The Players Tribune.”

Now, In Year One of the Tavares era with young stars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner riding shotgun, the Maple Leafs are expected to make the playoffs and go on a run next spring. And even after the Winnipeg Jets reached the Western Conference finals, Toronto appears to have the best chance to end Canada’s Stanley Cup drought that dates back a quarter-century to 1993.

“The big picture is obviously to always win the Stanley Cup and to not take any year for granted and always to believe every year, especially with the team we have that that’s where we want to get to,” said Tavares, one of the Leafs’ alternate captains. “First and foremost you’ve got to take the small steps and look at the small goals, the small building blocks to get there. I think you’ve got to enjoy that process, enjoy that journey.”

Toronto has won 13 championships but none since 1967, when the NHL was a six-team league. Signing Tavares to a $77 million, seven-year contract has raised optimism the drought will end soon — another big move following the hiring of coach Mike Babcock in 2015 and picking Matthews first overall in 2016.

“You add him, and we have a good core,” team captain Matthews said. “We want to definitely keep that core together obviously because we want to see ourselves in a position to win every year for the next 10 years.”

With Newsday staff reports

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