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When an NHL insider puts forth an outlandish notion, it’s usually born from one of two places: Their own attention-seeking imagination, or from a seed planted by someone else, perhaps during an informal chat or a over beer in Toronto.
Craig Button is an NHL insider for TSN, and recently proffered a whopper: What if New York Islanders star John Tavares hit unrestricted free agency, opted not to sign a long-term deal with anyone and instead went home to Ontario on a one-year deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs in an all-in attempt to win a Stanley Cup before the Leafs salary cap blows up?
OK, maybe outlandish didn’t do it justice. This was bat [expletive] crazy.
Button’s theory is that the Leafs could make this happen with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner still on their entry-level deals. It would give the Leafs a one-two punch up the gut of Matthews and Tavares, a duo that only the Pittsburgh Penguins and potentially the Edmonton Oilers could match in its potency.
You may ask, why would John Tavares sign a one year deal? Well, there is precedent for this and all you have to do is go back to 2008 when Marian Hossa signed with the Detroit Red Wings. Yes, those very same Detroit Red Wings that had Mike Babcock as their head coach. They fell in game seven of the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2009, but Marian Hossa made them a much better team and would John Tavares do that for the Toronto Maple Leafs? Absolutely.
Like Hossa when he signed with the Red Wings, Tavares will be 28 when the 2018-19 season begins. But that’s where the similarities end.
First off, Hossa was a burgeoning nomad. The Ottawa Senators made him an Atlanta Thrasher in August 2005. The Pittsburgh Penguins traded for him in February 2008 and he signed with Detroit in July, with the sole intention of winning a Stanley Cup there. After that didn’t happen, he signed his cap-circumventing deal with the Chicago Blackhawks, and won three.
Tavares has, time and again, voiced a fierce loyalty to the Islanders, the only franchise with whom he’s played. So the first step towards making this fantasy a reality is to pry his hands from the idea he can one day win with the Islanders. Maybe it’s a lack of confidence in management. Maybe he’s sick of the arena drama. Who knows?
The next thing you have to get past is the idea that John Tavares, a franchise player, would opt for a short-term rental from the Maple Leafs rather than long-term security from any number of teams that would ante up for him. (Teams that include the New York Rangers, for example.) That taking a one-year shot at a Cup is worth the risk of blowing out his knee on a one-year contract, or some other calamity.
And the final hurdle is the idea that Tavares would choose the Leafs for this one-season dalliance.
As is tradition, the assumption is that anyone from a place like Mississauga would consider it an honor and a privilege to play in Toronto at the first opportunity to do so, and attempt to bring a Stanley Cup there. The fact that the only person to have done this in recent memory is their current coach (a native of Manitouwadge, Ontario) apparently isn’t a deterrent for this philosophy.
It’s plausible, then. But if we’re fantasy casting John Tavares short-term destinations en route to a Stanley Cup, then let’s be honest: Tampa Bay would be just as attractive.
We all know the longstanding friendship between Steven Stamkos and Tavares. We know they’ve played for a Cup, while the Leafs – thus far – have not. We know that in Victor Hedman, the Lightning have a championship-caliber defenseman that the Leafs currently don’t possesses.
(Please note an all-in contract for Tavares in 2018-19 would still position the Leafs for an all-in offer to Drew Doughty in 2019-20.)
Yes, the Leafs would be in a much better cap position to give Tavares a ridiculous base salary on a one-year deal. But the Lightning have a window to win by 2018-19 and could act accordingly to clear the necessary space (which could be one Ryan Callahan buyout away).
Now, the flip side of this is whether it makes sense for the Leafs, and we’ll hand the mic to Andrew Boehmer of Editor In Leaf:
I love and hate the idea. My love for it is because it’s Tavares, a terrific hockey player who could really add to this young team and help push them towards success. But where the hate part comes into play is that the whole thing just sounds a little absurd. I guess that’s not hatred, just a realistic approach. Let’s just pretend that Tavares was willing to sign a one-year deal with Toronto, his hometown team. At what cost? I’m not necessarily focusing in on the Leafs cap situation either, but more so the message that this kind of move makes. Yes, a semi-positive one because management has acquired an elite talent, but also one that looks impatient, like the plan is being rushed.
So circling back to the start: Is this just speculation or informed speculation?
Said Button: “I don’t think it’s so much of a dream, in fact, I think it’s something that has real legs and could be real possible, because if John Tavares has to look at this from the perspective of who has a better chance to win in the near future, I think it’s clearly the Toronto Maple Leafs.”
At the very least, Leafs fans should be thrilled with this theory: Their team has graduated from “hey maybe he wants to play back home!” to “maybe he wants to contend for a Cup back home,” and that’s a significant improvement.
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