It’s nearing Christmas, and if you have kids you’ve been dealing with letters to Santa and catalogs with circled Paw Patrol toys. I guess the adult version of this looking at lists of free agents and dreaming up a scenario where your team has been good enough that a GM is going to bring in a top tier player who is going to win the cup. We’ve been through this recently with Steven Stamkos, where members of the Leafs fanbase we outright creepy in how confident they were that Stamkos was going to sign in Toronto. He did not. Which is amazing because he’s from here, and who doesn’t want to play in their hometown for the team they grew up cheering for, right?
The thing about Stamkos is that is so rare for a player of his talent to make it as close as he did to unrestricted free agency. He had the luxury of hearing the song and dance from every team in the league before ultimately deciding to stay put, for what seems like a lot less money than he could have made. It appears Yzerman talked Stamkos into an incredible discount, but in reality, it seems like Stamkos chose familiarity, a chance to win soon, a warm climate, and lower taxes. Perhaps familiarity is the greatest selling point. People don’t like moving, change, or uncertainty. And that’s why NHL free agency is generally boring af.
Anyway, here we are again. Another Toronto kid. Another free agent who is at the perfect age to not sweat giving them a seven year deal. Another player capable of putting the Leafs over the top. So let’s do it. Let’s talk about John Tavares.
Why are we talking about this?
This is Greg Wyshynski of ESPN’s fault. This morning he put out a list of eight teams that John Tavares could be a fit with, and the Leafs are of course one of them. In addition to the geographic reasons that are known on Tavares, Greg also shared this as why Toronto could be a good fit:
There has also been speculation that Tavares would take a high-yield, short-term contract to win in Toronto, like he’s Marian Hossa circa 2009.
Honestly, that doesn’t sound too bad at all. I mean, the Leafs do need to deal with significant raises for Nylander, Matthews, and Marner in the very near future, and Jake Gardiner as well for that matter, but all signs point to Toronto being gifted a significant bump in the cap ceiling and with van Riemsdyk, Bozak, and Komarov about to come off the books, Taveres wouldn’t be an issue in year one, and the buys the Leafs a bit of time figure out year two.
As for why Tavares wouldn’t want to play here, media criticism and attention rears its ugly face in Wyshynski’s analysis. Which is somewhat true. The media, and to a lesser extent bloggers and fans can be brutal to players in this market. Of course when Tavares has the luxury of having Auston Matthews be the face of the franchise and Tavares will certainly benefit from his status as a leader, veteran, and “good in the room” guy, which seems to be a fetish of everyone with a press pass.
Wyshynski’s strongest argument on why Tavares isn’t going to happen is this…
And though any team would be improved by the presence of John Tavares, perhaps the Leafs would prefer to spend that money on an elite defenseman? Say, Drew Doughty is available in 2019
His joke about Doughty being from Ontario and an obvious fit for that reason aside, he’s right that the blueline needs the most love. Waiting until 2019 seems like a bit of a waste though, and I’d argue that if John Carlson somehow reaches free agency this summer, that’s the guy the Leafs need to go all-in on.
For those still wondering, and haven’t clicked on the ESPN article yet, the other teams suggested are the Red Wings, Lightning, Canadiens, Rangers, Sharks, and Canucks, in addition to staying put with the Islanders. The fact that there are three other Atlantic division teams on the list is concerning, especially since the Lightning are the Leafs toughest competition in the East, and the Canadiens have money to burn.
Do we want Tavares?
That seems like a silly question for me to ask myself. The answer is yes, but with an asterisk. John Tavares has averaged .92 points per game across his entire career. He’s had a CF% of 52.27% over the past five seasons with a relative corsi of 3.53% over that same time. He’s a dominate first line center who would potentially be joining another dominate first line center on the Leafs, creating a true Crosby/Malkin situation, that has proven to be quite successful. Going with Tavares is committing to leaving the blueline an area of concern. Again, this is somewhat embracing the Pittsburgh model and there are worse models to follow. I’m sure Babcock would see similarities to Datsyuk and Zetterberg as well, though I think Lidstrom was a nice piece for him to have as well when he was in Detroit.
Isn’t He Just Going to Sign With the Islanders?
Yeah. This is probably going to happen. The NHL isn’t known for interesting things happening too often, and a star of Tavares’ magnitude walking away from the team that he’s spent his entire career with isn’t likely. Tavares has the captaincy. He’s on a playoff bound team with enough youth and talent to be competitive for the next few years, though it’s debatable if they are capable of taking that next step even with the addition of Barzal. Between Kulemin, Chimera, and Halak having expiring contracts this year, they have the money to pay Tavares without really impacting their roster at all and they’ll still have money to add in other areas. They’ve brought in Jordan Eberle for Tavares to show they are serious, and there is discussion of a new arena. All this while playing in New York, which as a location is a significant upgrade over Toronto as well.
Counter to that argument is that maybe playing in front of his family every night has a certain draw. The Leafs, especially with Tavares, are much further along than the Islanders on the road to being a cup contender. And testing the open market of free agency means stepping away from the Islanders who have been getting him for a bargain basement price for too long. Essentially, if for some reason he’s not an Islander on July 1st, be prepared to throw money at him.
So About the Leafs Cap Situation…
The bulk of my time spent writing this has been spent staring at NHLNumbers.com and trying to figure out how to make the money work. The departure of James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov, Roman Polak, Dominic Moore, Eric Fehr, and Martin Marincin creates $14M in cap space while opening up 5 roster spots. The Leafs also get $2M back in the form of Tim Gleason and Jared Cowen’s buyouts coming off the books. The cap ceiling is also potentially going up to $80M, creating an additional $5M of spreading around money. The priority is still William Nylander’s next contract which is likely to eat up $8M of that space.
For the sake of argument, I assumed Tavares at $10M and Nylander at $8M. Both seem like the higher side of what they’ll get, but it’s generally better to prepare for the worst when guessing what will be available.
Those roster holes are less intimidating when you figure that Kapanen, Liljegren, Dermott, Rosen, Gauthier, and Johnsson all have the potential to be affordable solutions. As does the wealth of late summer unrestricted free agents (cough, Cody Franson, cough). The Leafs will likely have performance bonuses carrying over into next season, but it’s entirely possible that they won’t be as significant as the previous season which saw them stuck with the bill for Auston Matthews winning the Calder. As long as he doesn’t win the Hart this year, the performance bonus carryover should result in found money, since I’m assuming the maximum impact here.
I don’t think anyone is truly worried about Year One of this though. The bigger hit would come in year two when you are potentially seeing the Leafs pay an additional $17M to Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner over what they are making today and presumably that’s coming up at the same time you have to pay Jake Gardiner and Kasperi Kapanen too. Expecting another significant inflation in the cap is a pipe dream, but there’s bound to be some new money. Looking at the situation today, it’s a matter of deciding whether Tavares is significantly better than what you’ll be able to add down the line, and the Leafs trust in their ability to move the assets they need to over the course of the next few years to maintain one of the best cores in the league.
Year two of a potential Tavares add, would likely mean players like Marleau and Martin would need to be dealt at the very least. A tough decision would need to be made on Jake Gardiner, but hopefully we’re all so in love with Timothy Liljegren at this point we don’t even notice that this needs to be done. Finally there’s Nikita Zaitsev, who is already looking like a bad idea. Finding a way to make Zaitsev go away is probably critical to an expensive acquisition.
It’s Just Too Damned Early
It’s December. Free Agency starts in July. That’s a lot of time for John Tavares to sign in New York and a lot of time to varying levels of ridiculous speculation about his future. Whether or not John Tavares is the player in question when the Leafs begin exploring free agency or their trade options, the point should still be that it’s foolish to shy away from chasing down top talent because of future cap implications. The past decade of seeing the Chicago Blackhawks trade away key pieces and remain competitive shows how it could be done, and the fact that it’s beginning to catch up with them this season shouldn’t be a deterrent. I’m willing to bet they’ve enjoyed the past decade a lot. So once Tavares signs, it’s safe to start daydreaming that somehow Drew Doughty, Erik Karlsson, Ryan McDonagh, Anton Stralman, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson are all going to hit free agency together in 2019.