Lightning hold no grudge towards John Tavares for choosing Maple Leafs

Chris Johnston and Shawn McKenzie discuss John Tavares almost signing with Tampa Bay and if Auston Matthews is still trying to get back into top condition after missing significant time with injury.

TAMPA, Fla. — John Tavares could have joined the Tampa Bay Lighting last summer. Just imagine how that would have shifted the balance of power in the Atlantic Division.

What made his decision to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs sting even more for Lightning head coach Jon Cooper was how impressed with Tavares he was during Tampa’s meeting with him at the Los Angeles-based offices of CAA Sports in the days leading up to July 1.

"What I learned is how thorough he was. That was one of the big things," Cooper said Thursday before the Lightning faced the Leafs. "When we went through that it wasn’t the agents doing the talking, it was John (who) was doing the talking and he was asking appropriate questions. Not fluff. And it wasn’t all just about hockey, it was about life and just different things like that.

"I thought he was pretty thorough."

That was a similar takeaway to the one San Jose Sharks coach Peter DeBoer gave recently about his team’s meeting with Tavares. He had always been an admirer of the player’s game, but came away with a stronger understanding of the person after spending a couple hours in a boardroom with him.

Tavares met with the brass of six teams — Toronto, Tampa, San Jose, Boston, Dallas and the New York Islanders, his former employer — before signing a $77-million, seven-year contract to play for his hometown Leafs.

He probably wouldn’t have received a deal that large if he came to the Lightning, but with no state tax in Florida a lower AAV would still have been palatable. Despite the impending cap crunch in Tampa, former general manager Steve Yzerman insisted to the Tavares camp that they would have been able to make it work.

The 28-year-old was pretty tempted, too, especially after a conversation with Lightning captain Steven Stamkos confirmed a lot of what he’d already thought about the merits of the organization.

"It definitely was very appealing, 100 per cent, they’ve got a quality hockey team and the results speak for themselves over the last number of years," said Tavares. "It was a reason why I wanted to meet with them."

Had he come here, the Lightning would have been able to roll out Stamkos, Tavares and Brayden Point as their top three centres. However, they’ve managed just fine without him — compiling the NHL’s best record at 24-7-1 while scoring four goals per game.

Stamkos didn’t play an active role in trying to woo Tavares, but he did share some of his own experience with him after testing free agency in 2016 before re-signing with the Lightning.

"When word got out that he was going to meet with Tampa, it just shows that we’re a team that’s obviously at the top of obviously great players’ lists when it comes to wanting to come here and be part of this great organization," said Stamkos. "I don’t think anyone’s really thought of it since that day."

Well, maybe most of them haven’t wondered what might have been. But Cooper has clearly imagined a world where Tavares wound up sitting on his bench instead of Toronto’s on Thursday night.

He’s been impressed with how quickly No. 91 has fit in with the Leafs after spending nine seasons with the Islanders.

"He’s got darn near 20 goals, right? [Auston] Matthews goes down for a prolonged period and now you need somebody to carry a load and he’s been the guy that’s doing it," said Cooper.

Both of these teams have Stanley Cup aspirations and there’s a decent chance they’ll cross paths down the line in the playoffs.

So the Lightning will be seeing plenty of Tavares, one way or another.

"Were we upset that he didn’t come here? Of course," said Cooper. "But you can’t say he didn’t make the right decision. He’s having a hell of a year on a great team.

"I’m happy for him, he’s a super guy. He’s just a stand-up guy."

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