• Lamoriello on the clock to re-sign Tavares
• Could Tavares choose pressure of Montreal, Toronto?
• Jets among long-shot suitors worth watching
The John Tavares watch is heating up, as we count down the days until the Islanders’ star reaches unrestricted free agency. That still leaves plenty of time for the Islanders to re-sign him, and the latest development suggests that Lou Lamoriello will be the one leading that charge. That seems like good news for Islanders fans, who hadn’t been given much reason to believe that Garth Snow could get a deal done.
But even with Lamoriello in the driver’s seat, there’s no guarantee that Tavares doesn’t at least test the market. Recently, his teammates have been sounding nervous over their captain’s future, and every day that goes by without an extension brings Tavares closer to what could be the biggest bidding war in recent NHL history.
We’re not quite there yet. But we’re close enough that it’s probably time to start figuring out where everyone stands. So today, let’s count down the John Tavares power rankings, as we figure out who slots in where in the various categories worth wondering about.
The “Which team needs him most?” Ranking
We may as well start here. Tavares is the sort of player that just about every team should be in on. But some need him more than others.
Not ranked: Vegas Golden Knights: Yeah, that’s about enough, George McPhee. Maybe try playing with the sliders moved past the “very easy” level.
5. Toronto Maple Leafs: The roster may not need Tavares as much as some others (or as much as they need help on the blue line). But after getting their shot at Steven Stamkos in 2016 and failing to reel him in, whiffing on another local boy in Tavares would at the very least be a dent to Toronto egos.
4. San Jose Sharks: They’re a good team that’s not far from contending. But the Joe Thornton era is ending, if it’s not over already, and the core is getting older. Landing Tavares would chart a new course for the team, while missing out would lead to questions about what exactly comes next.
3. Carolina Hurricanes: Let’s be honest, a lot of us are watching the Tom Dundon era unfold in Carolina and scratching our heads. Convincing Tavares to buy in and choose the Hurricanes would end a lot of those questions very quickly.
2. Montreal Canadiens: After a miserable season, they could use three things: some reason for optimism, some confidence in a struggling front office, and a first-line centre. Tavares takes care of all three in one shot.
1. New York Islanders: The obvious choice. Losing a franchise player is devastating. Seeing him choose to walk away after you’ve had all year to sell him on the long-term vision would be far worse, and raise all sorts of red flags about where the organization is headed.
The “What’s worst for the Islanders?” Ranking
If you’re an Islanders fan, it goes without saying that seeing Tavares leave would feel like a disaster. But some destinations would be extra painful, so let’s work our way down to the worst-case scenario.
Not ranked: Anyone from the Western Conference: Out of sight, out of mind? Not quite, but if Tavares has to go then Islanders fans would probably prefer him to land as far away as possible.
5. Montreal Canadiens: Only because Islanders fans have had to listen to Montreal fans and media drone on and on for the last two years about landing Tavares. Having them actually be proven right would be unbearable. After all, what’s worse than a smug Canadiens fan?
4. Toronto Maple Leafs: Oh, right.
3. New Jersey Devils: They haven’t come up often in Tavares rumours, which is strange given their cap space and an improving young roster. Seeing their franchise player stay in the division, not to mention the tri-state area, would be brutal.
2. Carolina Hurricanes: Another division rival. And to make matters worse, the Hurricanes landing Tavares would be an example of new ownership coming in and immediately shaking things up with big changes and aggressive moves. Meanwhile, new Islanders ownership patiently stuck with Garth Snow through Tavares’s final season, maybe until it was too late.
1. New York Rangers: With the Rangers rebuilding, they seem like a long shot to be in hard on Tavares. But this is a team that’s rarely been able to pass up the lure of a big-name free agent, and seeing Tavares move across town would be devastating for Islander fans.
The “What’s worst for the rest of us?” Ranking
In other words, the plausibly realistic outcome that would make the largest possible number of fans see the news and immediately think “Oh, that’s not good.”
Not ranked: Vancouver Canucks: The departure of the Sedin means the Canucks have plenty of cap room. But on paper, they’d be the weakest team to realistically have any kind of shot at Tavares.
5. San Jose Sharks: They tend to lurk in all of these big-name sweepstakes, and they could make for an attractive option. In a weak Pacific, landing Tavares might instantly make them the favourites.
4. Toronto Maple Leafs: They’re already young and loaded, and while most of us figure they’ll be focused on the blue line, adding Tavares to a one-two punch with Auston Matthews would move them close to Atlantic Division favourite status.
3. Vegas Golden Knights: You think an expansion team winning the Cup in year one would be ridiculous? Wait until you remember that they still have a ton of cap space, and could become the premier destination for the league’s free agents. (And that’s after they trade for Erik Karlsson.)
2. Nashville Predators: There aren’t many GMs more aggressive that David Poile, and finding a way to lure Tavares to the defending Presidents’ Trophy winners seems like the sort of move he’d try to pull off. The Predators have never really had a true franchise centre; they’d be scary if they did.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins: While you wouldn’t think they’d have the cap space to make it happen, the Penguins keep coming up as a potential dark horse. Even if they had to move a big ticket or two to clear room, a big three down the middle of Tavares, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin would be just about unbeatable.
The “Maximum Chaos” Ranking
Some people just want to watch the world burn. Those people are usually hockey fans.
Not ranked: New York Islanders: So after all that, he just re-signs with his old team? Where’s the fun in that?
5. Carolina Hurricanes: Only because Dundon will have named him coach and GM by November.
4. Detroit Red Wings: With everyone expecting them to finally head towards a patient rebuild, think about how much fun it would be to see Ken Holland kick down the door to the off-season, throw millions of dollars in the air, and announce “The old Red Wings are back, baby!”
3. Vegas Golden Knights: Follow me here: They win the Cup, sign Tavares, go after Thornton, John Carlson and all the other top UFAs, build an NBA-style super-team, and then miss next year’s playoffs by 20 points. Would any of that make any less sense than what they’ve already done this year?
2. Anywhere, but on a one-year deal: NHL free agents almost always sign for the maximum amount possible. But there’s a case to be made for someone like Tavares instead signing a one-season deal for as much money as possible — maybe even close to the 20-percent maximum — and then hit the market again next year when the cap is even higher. We’ve already seen NBA stars following a similar plan; having Tavares do it would redefine how NHL free agency works overnight.
1. Montreal Canadiens: The perfect storm of a high-pressure market, expectations to be the immediate franchise saviour, frenzied local media competing to see who could knife him first, and an entire organization full of people who’ll lose their jobs if it doesn’t work. Mix in furious Toronto fans who would immediately pretend they never wanted the guy in the first place and a salary-cap crisis for the next GM to figure out, and you’re not going to find a more volatile scenario that still feels vaguely realistic.
The “Which long shots are worth watching?” Ranking
Just about every team in the league should be interested in Tavares, so the list of possible destinations is a long one. This section is basically an excuse to list some other teams we haven’t mentioned yet so that their fans won’t yell at me.
Not ranked: Chicago Blackhawks: Yes, Stan Bowman is a wizard when it comes to working around what seems like an impossible cap situation. But with so many expensive pieces already locked in long term, there’s simply no way he could make it work here. None. Nada. Virtually zero. Let’s say 50-50 at best.
5. Winnipeg Jets: They have a ton of cap room, and no team could offer to surround Tavares with more talent up front. Sure, they’ve never been considered a top destination for free agents. But the chance to win changes that equation in a hurry.
4. Buffalo Sabres: Would they want him? Teaming Tavares with Jack Eichel would give the Sabres one of the best 1-2 punches in the league, and free them up to trade Ryan O’Reilly to patch up the rest of the roster. Can they afford him? The owner is a billionaire. Are they any good? Uh… the owner is a billionaire.
3. Colorado Avalanche: Tavares might jump at the chance to play on a rising young team in a good hockey market away from the east coast. Sure, it seems unrealistic. There was a time when we said the same thing about a team landing Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning: I mean… they couldn’t, right? There’s no way Steve Yzerman has the cap space now, let alone when Nikita Kucherov‘s deal is up after next year. Still, it’s a fantastic (and tax-free) destination for any UFA, and Tavares reportedly gets along with Steven Stamkos. Plus, there’s that whole “Steve Yzerman is a Jedi” thing.
1. St. Louis Blues: They may not seem like the most interesting option. But with cap space, a reasonably good team and a need for a top-six centre, they tick a lot of the boxes we’d look for in a favourite.
The “What will actually happen?” Ranking
Trying to predict the future is always a fool’s game, which is why they assigned the job to me. Here’s our best guess as to how this all plays out. Don’t read any further if you want to be surprised.
Not ranked: Toronto or Montreal: He wouldn’t really do that to himself, would he? With just about the entire league bidding on his services, you’d assume Tavares might prefer to go somewhere that won’t see him personally blamed for every loss for the next eight years.
5. Carolina Hurricanes: They need a centre, and they have a new owner who may or may not be willing to throw big dollars around. Would Tavares want any part of the ongoing drama in Carolina? For a big enough pay cheque, maybe.
4. Vegas Golden Knights: Honestly, at this point why not? They’re an expansion team built on the dregs and castoffs of the rest of the league. They could probably use a fourth-line centre.
3. San Jose Sharks: Call it a hunch, but if Thornton isn’t back (or is willing to sign for a discount), this seems like a fit.
2. Someone we haven’t even listed yet (i.e. the Mystery Team): NHL free agents have a habit of landing with the dark horses, so let’s group everyone we haven’t mentioned yet into one group. Who could emerge as the dreaded Mystery Team? Calgary? Los Angeles? Boston? Columbus? Am I just desperately listing teams now in a transparent attempt to ensure I can claim to have been at least vaguely right? Could be!
1. New York Islanders: The simplest answer is usually the right one, and while it wouldn’t pack much drama, the Islanders are still the safe choice here. They still own a six-week head start on the rest of the league, and the fact remains no true superstar has made it to July 1 in a decade. The bet here is that he ultimately decides to stick with the only team he’s ever known.