John Tavares hits unrestricted free agency as midnight deadline passes

John Shannon gives an update on Jonathan Tavares and how his decision could affect other players on the market.

The clock has struck midnight on John Tavares’ tenure with the New York Islanders.

An 11:59 p.m. ET deadline where he could exclusively sign an eight-year extension with the Islanders came and went Saturday, likely signalling the end of the line for the captain after nine seasons on Long Island.

Now, there was no official word from Tavares or agent Pat Brisson on his plans. He could still theoretically sign back in New York after hitting the open market at noon ET on Sunday, but the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement would only allow him to get a maximum of seven years on the new contract if that happened.

Given that the Islanders were among six finalists pitching Tavares during in-person meetings this week, it’s hard to imagine that he’d pass up the opportunity to sign for an extra year of guaranteed money if they’d won out in the bidding.

The 27-year-old centre is the biggest name to reach unrestricted free agency in the salary cap era. His hometown Toronto Maple Leafs now appear to be the front-runner for his services, with the San Jose Sharks, Boston Bruins, Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning also in the running.

A cone of silence has descended around Tavares’ decision-making process since he returned to his off-season home in Toronto on Thursday night. That came after three days of meetings at the Beverly Hills-based office of CAA Sports, where the teams were allotted two hours apiece to address Tavares, his fiancé and agents.

As recently as last weekend’s draft in Dallas, most in the hockey industry figured he’d be staying with the Islanders. They had the built-in advantage of being able to negotiate an extra year into the deal and have recently taken steps to address concerns about the organization — securing a new arena deal at Belmont Park earlier this year, and then hiring general manager Lou Lamoriello and head coach Barry Trotz this off-season.

Still, Tavares played out the most productive years of his career with the Islanders and only appeared in 24 playoff games. He significantly outperformed his last contract — a $33-million, six-year deal signed in 2011 — but the organization still failed to build a team capable of competing for the Stanley Cup around him.

After Lamoriello replaced Garth Snow last month, he’d been selling Tavares on the idea that things would change on his watch. He was aggressive in trying to lure back the franchise cornerstone.

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“There’s been a commitment from ownership,” Lamoriello told reporters at the draft. “They want us to be the best team in the NHL, and they gave me the authority to do that. The first decision was to get a coach, and in my opinion, we got one of the best ones in the NHL. Now we have to convince our player that this is the best decision for him.”

One option the Islanders could have pursued Saturday is trying to work out a sign-and-trade deal. That would have allowed Tavares to get an eight-year contract and the team to recoup some assets rather than having him walk out the door for nothing.

However, when midnight arrived, all was quiet.

There was no trade announcement and no news about an extension with the Islanders.

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