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Steven Stamkos and John Tavares made the same choice for the same reason

Forget hometowns and taxes, the choice was all about the present vs the future.

Tampa Bay Lightning v New York Islanders
Heading in the same direction as far back as 2010.
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Kyle Dubas was a guest of Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman on the 31 Thoughts Podcast, and he said some things everyone knows about by now. He said the Leafs can and will keep the Big Four. He said he’s not going to tell what was in the video they showed to John Tavares, and he said that it was the players on the Leafs that sold Tavares on the move.

He didn’t mean directly, although he told a story about how the players came to him when they learned that the team was in on Tavares and asked how they could help. What he meant was that the choice for a player signing as a free agent is about who he is going to be playing with.

Marek asked Dubas specifically about the way the Maple Leafs presented to Steven Stamkos two years ago, and the emphasis then on endorsement opportunities, and Dubas hedged around saying that was the wrong approach. What he did say was that at that time, the Leafs could only talk about the team in terms of potential. And as Lou Lamoriello likes to say, potential is just the things you haven’t done yet.

And therein lies the root of the choice made, both by Stamkos then and Tavares now. They aren’t opposite decisions: one for the Leafs, one not. One for the team that drafted him, one not. They are the same choice, made for the same reasons. The choice was for what the team is now over what it longs to be: the reality vs. the potential and the concrete over the merely possible.

Dubas made it clear that Tavares was choosing, after midnight passed on June 30, between Toronto and the Islanders. And as we all know, Stamkos chose Tampa over Toronto days before the deadline.

At the time Stamkos made that choice, the Lightning had just come second in the Atlantic and the Leafs were last. Last got the Leafs Auston Matthews, and second got the Lightning to the Conference Finals and a game seven against the eventual champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Lightning were a good team, maybe a great team, and the Leafs had potential. What Stamkos was picking was Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman, Jon Cooper and Steve Yzerman, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Tyler Johnson. Anton Stralman and Ondrej Palat.

All the Leafs had to counter that was some hopes and dreams for the Big Three, who had played a combined 22 NHL games at that point. Oh, and the chance that if they could find a goalie somewhere, maybe they could score their way up the standings enough to make the playoffs.

This summer, Tavares got to pick between the Leafs, who were third in the Atlantic, and the Islanders, who finished three points out of last in the Metro—just ahead of the Rangers, who’d tanked on purpose.

The choice is not nearly as stark. The Islanders have made the playoffs in the past. The year before Stamkos signed, they were a victim of the Lightning in the second round. And this year, the Leafs went down in game seven two rounds earlier than the Lightning had in 2016. The Leafs were not already a maybe great team, they’d only just roared through the stop sign and arrived at good. The Islanders were not mired in last place in the entire NHL, they were just without any sort of defence or reliable goaltending.

But the reasoning is the same. The Islanders, now that they’ve finally, way, way too late*, reorganized their management to fix the mess the team is in, could only claim to be heading in the right direction. They aren’t there already.

* Note to Islanders fans: No one is more qualified than us to look squarely at a hockey team and see the mistakes management has made piled so high, they feel like walls closing in on you. We know exactly where you’re at, how it feels, and how hopeless it all looks. We get it. And we get that you don’t want to hear this from us. I’m telling you anyway: You’re tanking, and it’s the smart play.

Tavares didn’t turn his back on the noble Islanders any more than Stamkos snubbed his hometown team. Tavares picked Mitch Marner and Morgan Rielly. Auston Matthews and William Nylander. He picked Frederik Andersen, and maybe that name should have been first. He picked Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner. He picked the youth and skill and both the potential and the reality of the Leafs now and the future.

He picked the Leafs because the team is good enough now. And while Mat Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier, Anders Lee and all those tasty players who were just drafted are also brimming over with potential, they’ll realize that potential some other year than this one.

Both Stamkos and Tavares picked now over someday. Stamkos had the easier call, so it’s not so surprising he made it faster.

Dubas, in discussing the Leafs on the podcast, turned the conversation away from himself as deftly as a defenceman clearing the front of the net. He said the accomplishments of the Marlies this year were about the players and all of the staff, not him. The Leafs right now are good because of all the people who work to make them good, and he puts the players at the top of the list.

It’s such a refreshing change from teams that seem almost to resent the need to even have hockey players on their teams. Watching John Tortorella and Jim Rutherford have a public spat over Jack Johnson, of all people, is fun, and waiting for the traded players to speak ill of their former teams adds drama to the summer, but the boringly non-dysfunctional Leafs got accolades from Tyler Bozak and well wishes from the other departing UFAs too.

Dubas returned those well wishes on the podcast, with sincerity. And in all of this, he’s very much like Lamoriello, who has his aphorisms about the logo on the front, not the name on the back. That’s just a way of saying the team comes first. What Dubas says is that the players are the team, and then he extends that to include everyone who works for the organization to better the team. It’s a slight difference in emphasis, but it comes from the same sort of place.

One thing that both Stamkos and Tavares decided was that it wasn’t their place at age 27 or so — and with nothing left to prove to anyone about how great they are as players — to build a team from the ground up. That’s a younger man’s job. And it’s hard to fault either of them for thinking that in an era when the clock ticks very loudly on a player’s career post age 25.

That doesn’t mean either of them are guaranteed a cup or even a better chance at one where they chose to go than the teams they said no to have. Fortunes rise and fall in the NHL. A team is the players. All of them, not just one star. So it’s not wrong for a star to chose a team that’s arrived at good instead of one that just has hopes it’s on the right road.

And that is also exactly why Dubas emphasized to Tavares that he wasn’t trading away any of the Big Three. It’s not just that he can manage simple arithmetic, unlike a lot of pundits who have been claiming for years there won’t be cap space for all three. There’s no point in Tavares coming to the Leafs if they have to stop being the Leafs because he signed on. And that’s why it is now the Big Four, and it will be for as long as they all want to play here.