Tavares, Stamkos and The Decision: ‘Talks are always open’

John Shannon goes over his Power 25 and explains why John Tavares and Drew Doughty are some of the NHLs most influential figures.

All of the other best players in the world had the day off.

Not John Tavares.

While the rest of the National Hockey League’s franchise faces were granted a travel day after a hectic All-Star Weekend in Tampa, Tavares made sure he was back on Long Island, punching the clock on Monday to shake hands, sign autographs and pump up the "positive" impact of playing 60 home games at old Islanders haunt Nassau Coliseum over the next three years instead of a basketball venue.

Just as the captain was there, front and centre, when the club’s majority owner, Jon Ledecky, happily announced the securement of Belmont as the Isles’ future home earlier this winter.

Question the future of John Tavares, sure, as he uses all the time he’s earned to ponder his next job contract, but never question his commitment.

"The ball really is in John’s court. He’s being very contemplative about it; he’s thinking about it. It’s a huge decision in a young man’s life. We want him to take his time, and we want him to come to the decision that’s best for him and his family," Ledecky told reporters Monday.

"We love John Tavares. We want John Tavares to remain here for his entire career as an Islander, and we want him lifting that fifth Cup."

To that end, Tavares is doing everything humanly possible.

When he takes the ice Wednesday in Toronto — his hometown and one of 30 cities that would love to woo him off the Island — the 27-year-old will continue his mission of dragging a defensively porous bunch into the post-season.

Confounding, the Islanders sit just a single point outside a wild-card spot despite having the worst goals-against average and second-worst penalty kill in the league.

That’s because Tavares is on pace for a 93-point campaign that would set new career benchmarks in goals and assists. He’s led the Isles to the second-best offence in the league and helped turned linemate Josh Bailey into a sudden all-star at age 28.

"He’s obviously having an unbelievable season," says longtime friend Steven Stamkos. "To see the season that he’s had under the circumstances goes to show you the type of character I know he has."

The emotional heft of a life-altering decision? Stamkos wore it in 2016 as the clock ticked down to July 1 and his chance to become the league’s highest-paid star, to shake both his own destiny and the NHL’s power balance with a couple of pen strokes. Stamkos liked a couple conspicuous tweets and took some meetings with opposition before he walked away from the briefcases of cash and returned to the beach.

Stamkos’s point production only dipped by eight points in 2015-16, but there were moments his poker face slipped and his future tinkered with his present.

"It’s in the back of your head for sure," Stamkos says. "He’s probably doing a better job of not letting it affect him than I did."

Tavares will answer all of your questions about The Decision in the same even manner he deals with everything, in public at least. If the star is stressing in the slightest, he’s burying it to an undetectable depth.

"I don’t think because it’s my contract year, my approach or my thought process, going out there to help my team, and the way I play the game should change," Tavares says. "I just play the game the same way I always have. None of the other stuff comes into my mind."

Not unlike Mike Green, Drew Doughty and Erik Karlsson, Tavares was subjected to recruitment pitches at All-Star Weekend. He says he enjoyed forging new friendships with the other talent, but he has not gone the James van Riemsdyk route of soliciting free agent advice from his peers.

"The times I’ve run into Stammer, he just told me to worry about playing," says Tavares, who is focused on his own process.

The reasons to believe Tavares will stay put go beyond the fact that almost all hockey players stay put.

1. Eight years of security is comforting for a player who’s suffered two season-ending injuries in his past four years. Though Tavares won’t reveal details of his extension negotiations with management, he says: "Talks are always open, and they’ve been great so far."

2. With Ledecky leading the charge, the transition out of Brooklyn through Nassau to Belmont Park marks a return to the club’s geographical heart. "It’s a big part of what the Islanders are all about," Tavares says. "I’m not going to sit here and say the arena is the No. 1 thing or it’s most important, but anything that affects my daily life — going to the rink, where I play, where you live — is obviously going to affect my decision."

3. The way he lavishes praise on head coach Doug Weight, who was still a player when Tavares was a rookie: "We got to know each other when I came in as a rookie, and he really helped me out as a young player. I really trust him a lot. I tried to soak in as much information as I can about how he approached the game. Now, there’s a standard he sets for our hockey club and each player individually. I know what he expects of me. I try to reach that every day, and possibly more if I can. His door’s always open. I can go to him about anything, not even about the game. It’s nice to have that personal relationship. His understanding of the game and his commitment to win and passion is second to none, so I’m very thankful to have him as a coach, as a friend, and someone to lean on."

4. The promising Islanders youth movement. Tavares rhymes off the names Mathew Barzal, Sebastian Aho, Anthony Beauvillier, Josh Ho-Sang and Ryan Pulock. He points out how well Garth Snow has drafted.

"I want to play for a team that’s doing everything they can to win, and the Islanders are certainly doing that," Tavares says. "You can see the potential with a lot of the young talent that we have and the guys that have been there for a while. Guys like Josh and Anders [Lee], Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk. We have a solid foundation."

5. He doesn’t seem bitter watching fellow elite centres like Jonathan Toews, Anze Kopitar and Sidney Crosby win multiple championships while he’s only reached Round 2 once in eight years.

"It’s not all about one player," says Tavares. He references the Isles’ 2-1 Game 7 loss to Washington in 2015. "You flip that script, it’s amazing — you never know how far you can go. I think I’ve had some good moments, some good opportunities. A few years ago I had a series-winning goal. That’s what you play for. I believe and hope there will be a lot more."

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Brent Burns waited only until November in his contract year to re-up with San Jose for eight years and $64 million, declining to hit the open market as the most coveted defenceman since Ryan Suter walked away from Nashville to Minnesota for $98 million. That June, Burns was instrumental in the Sharks’ flight to their first Stanley Cup Final. Nashville went four rounds last spring; the Wild never has.

So, even if everyone wants you, how do you pick a winner?

"How do you do it? It’s tough. You never know if it’s going to be a first-ranked team or an eighth-place team," Burns says. "[Tavares] has been dominating games for a long time. So much luck has to play into going on a long run."

The same summer of 2016 Stamkos re-upped in Tampa, Islanders free agents Frans Neilsen, Kyle Okposo and Matt Martin all left and found more money. Neilsen (Detroit) and Okposo (Buffalo) are committed to two of hockey’s least promising teams. Toronto’s Martin, it appears, will be a healthy scratch against Tavares Wednesday.

Tavares isn’t asking for any advice, but Burns has some anyway.

"You just gotta try to pick a spot that you’re happy," Burns says, "and go from there."

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