As regular readers will know, I sometimes split my Leafs’ fan brain into its optimistic, sunny, everything-is-awesome portion and the pessimistic, battle-scarred, everything-is-going-to-shit half.
Today they’re taking on one of the game’s greatest stars: should—can—the Leafs sign John Tavares this summer?
Let’s Meet John
Pessimist: God, I hate Leafs fans.
Optimist: You’re a Leafs fan.
Pessimist: Yeah, that’s why I hate them. Just get to the point.
Optimist: John Tavares, for those of you who don’t follow hockey, is a centreman for the New York Islanders. He is 27 years old. He is, by pretty much universal consensus, a top-10 centre in the NHL. Over the last five seasons, among centres, he ranks fourth in the league in points (behind Sidney Crosby, Tyler Seguin, and Nicklas Backstrom.) Over the last three years, he’s 12th in the NHL in primary points per 60. He’s turned a long string of wingers—Kyle Okposo, Matt Moulson, Michael Grabner, Anders Lee—into premiere goal-scorers. He’s a positive relative Corsi and xGF player, if you really need to know about the nerd stats. He’s really good at scoring! Everyone knows all this already. Just acknowledge he’s really good and we can move on.
Pessimist: ....yes, he’s really good.
Optimist: See, that wasn’t so hard. Young John is, as of July 1st, 2018, an unrestricted free agent. He has been in a position to sign an extension with the Islanders since Canada Day last summer, and he has not done so. Tavares, by the way, was born in Mississauga and grew up in Oakville. Is it so far-fetched to wonder whether Tavares might want to leave the Islanders and come to join the rising franchise in Toronto?
Would He Even Want To Come Here?
This is one of the things I hate the most about Leafs fans. Every single goddamn free agent star has to be linked to Toronto, and how often do they ever come here?
Optimist: Patrick Marleau.
Pessimist: Patrick Marleau is 92 years old. I mean a real star, in their prime. They almost never hit the market and they don’t come to Toronto where they do. Hell, the Islanders SBNation blog has compiled a long, long list of times when John Tavares has asserted that he would like to spend his career with the Islanders, and they’ve made a point of emphasizing that he has not given any real indication he’d be interested in coming to the Leafs. This is Centre-of-the-Universe stuff again. Star exists, Leafs exist, therefore star will come to Leafs. Multiply by a hundred for star from the GTA.
Optimist: Hey, do you know what John Tavares could do if he wanted to stay with the Islanders? He could sign an extension with them. Presumably the Isles’ management, unless they are composed of single-cell amoebae unable to comprehend the world around them, will go out of their way to write Tavares a really, really big cheque because they’ve noticed he’s their franchise player. And yet, they haven’t done that. For months now. Hm.
Do you think, perhaps, that John Tavares has also noticed things? Namely that the Islanders are a shambling mediocre wreck of an organization and have been since he showed up? That in the eight seasons prior to this one, the Islanders won exactly one (1) playoff series?
Pessimist: The Leafs have won zero in that timespan.
Optimist: Yep! The Leafs have been quite bad. And in the course of being bad, they got to draft high; in the course of drafting high, they got to pick players like Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and most of all, Auston Matthews. The Leafs have the core of a team that is ready to jump to the top table of the NHL. The Isles have the core of a team that the Leafs absolutely waxed a couple of weeks ago, probably because they used their highest picks on the likes of Michael Dal Colle, Griffin Reinhart, and Ryan Strome.
Pessimist: What about Matt Barzal? Barzal looks absolutely mint, and if the Isles can ever get a healthy defence group and some halfway decent goaltending, they could get a lot better very quickly.
Optimist: They were playing the worse Sebastian Aho second pair when we saw them. Success is knocking at the door, I’m sure. More to that, how many times do you think John Tavares has been sold a bill of goods by management, that this was going to be the year? This is not going to be the year. It’s never going to be the year. Garth Snow will never get fired, the team will never make money, they’ll keep looking back at the 80s and try to convince incredulous children that yes, we really were a dynasty once! Tavares has endured nearly a decade of that already. Why would he want to sign up for a decade more?
Pessimist: Maybe he likes where he is? You know what this reminds me of—Steven Stamkos. Remember how gung-ho we were to get Stamkos? And then at the last minute, he signed an extension to stay in Tampa. Like Tavares will in Long Island. Like every star does always.
Optimist: Tampa was good and, as this year has proven, destined to be even better. They’d already had a Finals appearance with Stamkos. What has Tavares’ time with the Isles got him? That one series where they beat the Panthers, who were garbage? The only way Tavares is going to stay in Long Island—sorry, Brooklyn, lol—is if he follows the same logic of the girl who marries her high school boyfriend and stays in the town she was born because it’s the life she knows.
You’re beautiful and talented, John, and you can have it so much better.
Should the Leafs Want To Sign Him?
Optimist: What is this, a trick question?
Pessimist: Look, Tavares, is great. But the Leafs have a pretty clear weakness right now, and it’s not offensive centres, it’s right defence.
Optimist: Mmm, you’re right, actually we should hang onto Tyler Bozak and trade for Jason Demers. This will absolutely make us better than signing JOHN GODDAMN TAVARES.
Pessimist: I’m just saying, the Leafs would be making a really spectacular upgrade, sure, but at 2/3C. Even assuming Tavares is okay playing second fiddle to Auston Matthews, the amount of money you’d have to plunk down on him basically precludes a defence upgrade. You’re losing Jake Gardiner, almost certainly.
Optimist: So I can have either John Tavares or Jake Gardiner. Gee.
Yeah I’m going to take the guy who’s been a finalist for the Hart and the Art Ross. Sorry Jake.
Pessimist: Fine, fine. But then—
How Does The Money Work?
Optimist: I am glad you asked! Behold, your 2019-20 Maple Leafs.
Pessimist: What the hell is this?
Optimist: A Leafs roster for the future, once we’ve signed the Big Three. The only trade was unloading Matt Martin’s salary on the Oilers for a 5th—come on, you know they’d do it—and the only other trick was putting Nathan Horton on LTIR, where he has built a permanent house with a nice view of the ocean. The result is a team that fits snugly under an $82,000,000 cap despite giving full-value raises to Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander, and paying John Tavares a very considerable amount of money. In exchange you have a team that is probably the best in the NHL at both C and RW, and that is a very strong contender for a Cup. I didn’t even have to LTIR Marleau.
Pessimist: Isn’t the Isles’ bad defence supposed to be one reason Tavares wants to leave?You’re counting on huge growth from a bunch of players. If Liljegren and Dermott don’t work out that D-group is going to be a nightmare.
Optimist: If they do, it’s going to be better than the defence we have now—potentially a lot better.
Pessimist: In which case they’re all going to need raises right after this season ends.
Optimist: Which means it’s a good thing Marleau’s contract is about to end, right? And sure, you can move around the dollar figures, or sign a bargain bin 4C, or whatever. It doesn’t really matter. The point is it’s entirely plausible for the Leafs to sign John Tavares and make it work without sacrificing any of their core pieces. This team still has Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Kadri, Rielly, and Andersen on it. How many teams are going to be able to offer both full value for money and a young core of that calibre?
At this time, I’d like to point you to a good quote from Carolyn Wilke.
Since it's come up recently - The 4 reasons why UFAs sign a deal:— Carolyn Wilke (@Classlicity) July 4, 2017
💸 - Money
🏆 - Trophies
⏰ - Playing time/respect
🏠 - To go home
The Leafs can offer John Tavares what may well be the best possible combination of 1, 2, and 4. And while he might play a minute or two less a night than when he was carrying the Islander franchise on his overworked shoulders, I think he’ll adjust just fine.
Pessimist: Again, this is assuming he wants to come here—and again, most stars stay where they are. Don’t even get me into whether John Tavares wants to live in hockey’s biggest fishbowl, or whether a guy who has been The Guy for years is ready to play behind The Guy somewhere else. If Tavares wants to go to market, most of the league will be prepared to bid on him. It’s only Toronto arrogance to think we’re naturally the best option.
Beyond that, though—what if this isn’t enough? The Isles have tried to build around Tavares since he was drafted, and as you’ve said, so far it hasn’t gone so hot. If you make this team, this is who you ride or die with for Auston Matthews’ prime. You have $36M wrapped up for years into the future in four forwards. That’s a lot of eggs in comparatively few baskets. And again, that defence is, to put it charitably, untried.
Optimist: Let’s be honest, we can probably get out of our bad deals after the 2020 lockout anyway.
Pessimist: Your optimism takes you to weird places, man.
Optimism: Tavares has every reason to want to come here, the Leafs have every reason to want to sign him, and they have an excellent chance to make it work.
Pessimist: He’s going to sign an eight-year extension in Long Island the last week of June, and you’ll move on to swooning over Drew Doughty in 2019. Who won’t come here either.
Optimism: You know, you can construct a very credible roster that pays Drew Doughty—
Pessimist: [flips over table]
What chance is there that the Leafs sign John Tavares this summer?
|Zero or close to it
|Low but meaningful
|They’re a serious contender to get him
|Tavares is house-hunting in the GTA as we speak