Let’s keep expectations low for John Tavares

Photo Credit: © John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY SPORTS

Earlier this week, veteran hockey writer Al Strachan voiced his perspectives on the situation which saw Steven Stamkos decide to stay in Tampa Bay and shifted his eyes towards John Tavares. Strachan retired a few years ago and isn’t quite the voice of influence he was to a prior generation, but the talking points he brought up on Twitter are no doubt going to be talking points for others over the next 23 and a half months. So let’s get some things out of the way…

A lot of people thought my “Stamkos is coming” tweets and tidbits were hyperbole to “rally up the troops”, and drive page views, especially when they didn’t come true. Now, I don’t blame you for that, considering that I am not a top-level insider and that I never claim myself to be one. 

However, Toronto is a very talkative city. There were a couple of people on Toronto’s end and many more on Stamkos’ end who were willing to chime in their two cents. Focusing solely on Steven, it was easy to see who was blowing smoke and who was being serious, and the consensus, right down the day of that last meeting, was that Toronto was his intention. He was sold on the idea and was ready to make it happen.

You don’t even really need “in the know” people around you to come to that conclusion. We’re talking about the Toronto-area captain of a competing NHL team signing the shortest contract his team would give him that would make him a UFA as soon as possible. A guy who waited until a few days before free agency to even show an interest in really negotiating with them, only to accept an elongated version of an offer they tendered in January. 

He wasn’t given an ultimatum by the Lightning. He initiated negotiations, which surprised Steve Yzerman, who was coming to terms with losing his guy. I don’t know much yet about the “why” it fell apart (I’m not going to risk burning bridges by demanding answers out of people in July so I can look less wrong on Twitter), but the tone changed after the second meeting and a lot of money was left on the table.

If it was just about a game of chicken involving money, Stamkos had a few days to do more with Buffalo, Detroit, Vancouver, and Montreal than “I’ll call you later, maybe”. It wasn’t happening in Toronto, the dream died, and that was that. But the point is, there was a dream involved.

I also believe this assertion to be somewhat inaccurate. I will say that, based off of what I’m aware of, the Leafs would have likely preferred John Tavares to be the man standing in front of them in the offices of 40 Bay Street. 

Truth be told, he’s a better all-around hockey player. Stamkos might be one of the truest snipers in the history of hockey, with an unparalleled ability to maintain shooting percentage despite volume and location. But Tavares plays a cerebral game, always knowing where to be to create opportunities, which makes life easier for his coaches and his teammates. It makes him look a little less flashy, as his opportunities are a little bit easier to accomplish, but his versatility makes him one of the best hockey players on earth from both a possession driving and production-inducing perspective. Tavares is what Leafs fans are hoping Auston Matthews will become, with a bit of skating ability exchanged for an Ontario Drivers Licence.

I also believe, despite my skepticisms, that the Toronto Maple Leafs’ front office is comprised of people that would be smart enough to take the boat over the mystery box.

Steven Stamkos was a black swan event. Superstars hitting the negotiating window, let alone the open market, aren’t exactly a rare occurrence. In the Salary Cap era, we basically have a sample size of Ilya Kovalchuk, who also went back to his rights-holding team. Most of the other elite talents (Zach Parise, Marian Hossa, Marc Savard, Zdeno Chara, even Paul Kariya in the early 2000’s) were in their late 20’s at the absolute earliest when they signed. Getting an opportunity to sign one of the most coveted free agents of all time, who has basically decided that he’s going to sign with you unless goes wrong, is something you take, no matter what stage in your rebuild you are. 

After all, you’re rebuilding to get a guy like that. Holding off and hoping you can “get the next one” when there are approximately two elite players that have done this before turning 28 in the entire history of the NHL would be incredibly arrogant.

Again, to use Stamkos as the comparable, this was a young star at the edge of athletic prime and entering his plateau years, who only signed a five-year deal to bring him to Free Agency at +1 because he couldn’t get a four-year deal. A player who has seen, despite his star power and captaincy, his minutes and usage slashed by his head coach in favour of others. A player who’s GM shipped his mentor out of town over what, in hindsight, seems like a pretty insignificant issue. A player who was offered below market value to stay because of the realities of the salary cap. An extroverted young man who loves the spotlight and craves in his day-to-day life what Toronto has to offer.

Tavares is a much quieter person both on and off the ice, who seems very content with the just-above-obscurity status he has in Long Island. If he needs a dose of the big city, he’s a subway ride away, so he has the best of both worlds. He signed a six-year deal, eating up two UFA years. His coach gives him whatever minutes he wants because he is his shining star. His GM adores him and, especially after ducking out of Kyle Okposo and Franz Nielsen at just the right time, probably has the cash to offer him to make him stay. The minority owner of the franchise, the man who oversaw his drafting, stresses so hard on keeping superstars that he once signed Rick DiPietro until the apocalypse.

I’d love to be wrong, but I’d be shocked if Tavares doesn’t sign a “364 days to go” contract next July.

Lastly, even if the Leafs felt that Tavares is a better player than Stamkos, they sure as hell didn’t make the decision based off of where they are right now.

This idea that the Leafs are an awful team that are going to chase Nolan Patrick, and that the staff is okay with that, is pretty insane. Percentage variance alone cost the team dozens of goals last year, and in adding rookies Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and Nikita Zaitsev to the fold, the team was already in much better roster shape on May 1st, let alone July.

If the Leafs were going to spend this year evaluating youngsters, how would Stamkos be getting in the way? Outside of Matthews, nobody at centre that has a shot at making the opening night roster is younger than their mid-20’s. Would he be taking a chance from Brooks Laich? That’s a man who’s old enough to be the father of the non-overager half of this year’s draft class.

Meanwhile, the Leafs went out and signed Matt Martin, who plays on a side that is already full of vets getting in the way of equally if not more skilled kids. They signed Roman Polak, who competes with about 30 games worth of right-side NHL experience across three players. They upgraded in goal by acquiring Frederik Andersen, despite their trio of young goalies approaching the testing age.

As for Vesey, I’m not sold, with all things considered, that Toronto will be his target.

The Leafs aren’t going into this year thinking they’re going to win the Stanley Cup. But the Atlantic Division is pretty awful, and there’s no reason that they can’t be decent this year. If they managed to take Stamkos away from one of the only two good teams in the division, calling them a team that could make noise wouldn’t have been insane at all.

In short, Stamkos staying in Tampa Bay wasn’t about waiting for John Tavares. It was about the Leafs not tabling an offer that suited him, despite him going in with an eye towards them. Those are the breaks.

Let’s not assume that, because things didn’t go the way many of us expected in late June, that Leafs management has a grand Tavares plan in mind and that he’s a lock. I have no doubt that if he hits the market, they’ll go after him, and that with a sizeable projected sum of cap space and a better spot in the standings, they’ll be able to make him seriously consider it.

There’s a lot of time left on that contract, though, and as it stands, Tavares seems to like the Islanders as much as they like him. As long as the team doesn’t implode over the next year and change, it would be hard to see him leaving Long Island.

A team can dream, and a 1/2 punch of Tavares and Matthews would stack up against just about any in the world, but expectations should remain tempered and plans should be made to be achievable with or without him.

  • Jeremy Ian

    Al Strachan wrote an amazing book called ‘Why the Leafs Suck and How they Can Be Fixed” which y’all should read as it is a great book that anticipated a lot of opinions that came to be widely accepted over the years since it came out.

    He foresaw the ‘cap issues’ that came to be as a result of the introduction of the hard-cap ceiling following the lockout and didn’t believe in Burke much like you guys don’t.

    When he speaks I listen and you should too. The man is very smart and he may well know something we don’t.

    I think if given the choice between Tavares in 2 years and Stamkos now most Leafs fans and indeed hockey fans would go for Tavares – it just makes so much more sense – he is a better player and we will be a lot better and aware of our strengths and weaknesses. Hopefully 2 years of Stamkos ‘proving’ that he’s not worth the contract he signed will only make the signing of Tavares more palatable and his price more reasonable. Also two years of our kids developing will bring us closer to contention and winning in Toronto will no longer be a far-out dream that it is now.

  • SEER

    Tavares the more complete player? alright mate… Look we lost out take it like a man.

    Stamkos is better than Tavares

    Stamkos 569 GP: 562 points
    John Tavares 510 GP: 471 points

    Stamkos is better. Simple, Points win you games. It’s on the scoreboard that matters the most.

  • Jeremy Ian

    From a Leaf perspective, the main difference between Stamkos and Tavares is less their skillset than the two teams they play for.

    Tampa Bay is an excellent team, and will be for for years to come.

    The Islanders? They may flop. But I still have a hard time imagining Garth Snow letting Tavares walk. It’s not like he’s Yzerman with all those guys he has to re-sign; in fact, the more flopping is a threat, the more money Snow will put on the table for Tavares.

  • CMpuck

    I don’t see Tavares walking, he’s a character guy that signed a sweetheart deal with NYI to be their franchise player. I’ll quietly pine for McDavid one day, other than that, done with the hometown superstar coming home false hope.

  • Jeremy Ian

    First time commenter, I did want stamkos just because he is stamkos, however I’m not to upset that he went back to Tampa bay. Tavares is such a better hockey player, especially since he learned how to skate, that if I was Toronto management, I would be happy to giveh him 10 million. I don’t think he likes it in long island and there might be a chance. He is a top 5 centers in the league no doubt. Hopefully this works out for the best, havnt had this much hope since the Leafs lined up against Carolina in the conference finals.I’m not gonna hold my breath.

  • Maple Reefs

    If Matthews pans out, Kadri signed for 6 years and Nylander stay at centre, what do the Leafs need Tavares for? We appear to finally be strong up the middle and the anointed “generational talent” would be the 1C here for the next decade! We need at least two defenceman for the top 4 much more than a $10M centre.

    • 24% body fat

      Because how many games have Matthews and Nylander played in the NHL.

      Kadri is an average player and at best and average 2nd line C.

      Right now Tavares > kadri, matthews and nylander

      best case scenario for Toronto, and not guarenteed Matthews > Tavares > Nylander

      Even if Nylander turns out to be good why would you not sign a free Tavares and trade Nylander for A quality D man or play him on the wing.

  • supra steve

    Yes, because we all know that any kid that grew up in Ontario just can’t wait to become a Leaf at their earliest possible chance. As a Flame fan I’m pretty much resigned to the fact that Giordano, Sean Monahan, Sam Bennett, and T J Brodie will be moving to Toronto (full time) in the not to distant future…and they will probably convince Gaudreau to follow.

    No, I’m not being serious.

  • Jeremy Ian

    As a born Leaf fan, and someone who left Toronto for professional reasons after graduating from U of T, I have to say we need to get over this.

    One can be a Leaf fan for life, think of Toronto as home, and still yearn for a successful career that is not necessarily hitched to either the team or the city.

    It’s just life.

  • Stan Smith

    I personally think Stamkos waited for the opportunity to talk to the Leafs because of money, period. He wanted to see if they would offer him substantially more than Tampa did.

    I think the Leafs thinking was that if Stamkos wanted to come to Toronto, and was willing to do so for a reasonable amount, they would be happy to sign him.

    Once Stamkos found out they weren’t offering the money he thought they would, he decided he would rather stay in Tampa, and have a chance at winning a cup right away.

    As for Tavares, the Leafs have to make their future plans without him. Stick to the Shanaplan, and build from within. They at least appear to be doing a good job of that so far.