SAN JOSE, Calif. — The Sharks rolled out their finest teal carpet while pursuing John Tavares in free agency last summer.
They showed up to their face-to-face meeting with a contingent that included Hasso Plattner — the seldom-seen team owner and founder of tech giant SAP — and discussed not only the merits of a first-class organization, but also some of the off-ice business opportunities that would be available to him while living in Silicon Valley.
They were even willing to go as high as $91-million to sign No. 91, which is $2-million more per season on a seven-year deal than he ended up getting from the Toronto Maple Leafs.
In fact, had Tavares not been seduced by the chance to come home and join a young team with Stanley Cup upside, he could very well have ended up here playing on the other side of Thursday’s Leafs-Sharks game at SAP Center.
That would have thrilled San Jose coach Peter DeBoer, who already boasts a stacked lineup without him. His history with Tavares includes a couple Team Canada experiences at the IIHF World Hockey Championships and the 2008 Super Series junior event, and he considers the star centre one of the top players in the sport.
"I just love the honesty to his game. He plays both ends of the rink, he wins battles, he goes to the dirty areas of the rink, he makes other people around him better, which you think is everybody in the NHL, but it’s not," said DeBoer. "That’s a short list of guys. You can put a John Tavares with almost anybody and he’s going to make a line go or make those guys better. Joe Thornton has that ability, too.
"He’s just a special player."
Looking back on the July 1 free-agent decision now, you can appreciate how tough it was for Tavares. San Jose is a beautiful place to live and the Sharks have missed the playoffs only once in the last 14 seasons. They are leading the Pacific Division nearly a quarter of the way into this year, too.
This would be a top-drawer destination for any NHL player to land.
His other finalists were Tampa and Boston — both neck-and-neck with Toronto for the Atlantic Division lead — and Dallas, which plays in a tax-free state and is holding down a wild-card spot while playing out of the highly competitive Central Division.
Even the New York Islanders team he left is enjoying prosperity under new head coach Barry Trotz.
In addition to the sentimental aspects of joining the Leafs team he grew up cheering for, Tavares saw a roster of players that could help elevate his game. It’s early yet, but he’s had the second-fastest start to a season in his NHL career and is currently on pace for 50 goals and 100 points while clicking nicely on a line with Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman.
"When I decided to come here I really felt this was a great situation for me to help the team, but also to be around a lot of the guys that were here that were going to help my game," Tavares said earlier this week. "Not just scoring goals, but certainly I want to be as productive as I can be and I try not to set a limit on anything. I think you’re always trying to strive for more.
"I knew it was a good situation that I was going to be able to really push myself and have a good support system here to help elevate my game and make me a better player."
Even as well as it’s gone, Tavares acknowledges that he’s still in an adjustment period. He thinks it could take the entire season before he rewires his brain and develops new routines. Something as small as playing with two right-handed shots in Marner and Hyman has been different after skating with left-shooting Anders Lee and Josh Bailey for most of the last two seasons.
"[I’m] playing with a new bunch of players and a different system, and kind of just feeling all that out. I probably feel like I’m thinking the game a lot more than being instinctive," said Tavares. "It’s hard to complain, but I still feel like there’s a lot of room for growth and to get better and to continue to feel more comfortable and feel like myself."
The Leafs certainly aren’t complaining about the results.
Here in San Jose there are no regrets about how things played out either. The Sharks did an impressive job of selling their situation to Tavares and may not have been able to find enough cap space to make the Erik Karlsson blockbuster in September had he chosen to sign with them on July 1.
However, DeBoer’s respect for the player only grew when he sat down with the Sharks brass on June 26 as part of the free-agent courting period. It was an involved discussion.
"It was exactly what I thought John Tavares would ask," said DeBoer. "I don’t know him really well, but I’ve had him on some different teams at the world championship level and world junior. Very prepared, very educated, there was no fluff to the questions as I’m sure you guys can appreciate.
"He’s to the point and that’s how he plays, too."