TORONTO — Winning free agency doesn’t always equate to winning hockey, although it’s been a long while since the NHL had a free agent like John Tavares.
Still, it isn’t difficult to concoct a scenario where things might not have gone so well for a 28-year-old arriving into hockey’s largest market with the league’s second-highest cap hit and sky-high expectations.
And yet, through the first segment of games the Toronto Maple Leafs have played with Tavares, he’s come exactly as advertised and been worth every penny of the $15-million he was paid in a signing bonus on the afternoon he chose Toronto over five other free-agent finalists.
"What I like about him is he’s a pro. What I like about him is he’s calm," said coach Mike Babcock. "What I like about him is he doesn’t – none of this [media attention] matters, he’s just going to come and do his job and he’s a man.
"I think it’s given Patty Marleau and [Ron] Hainsey and those guys another ally and good leadership."
He’s also helped the Leafs put points in the bank at a rate never before seen in the franchise’s 100-plus year history.
Truth be told, they had no business heading into the holiday break with Sunday’s 5-4 overtime win over the Detroit Red Wings. They did a poor job of controlling the puck and generating chances for half the night — Tavares and linemates Mitch Marner and Andreas Johnsson included — and fell behind to an opponent making up the gap in skill with will.
But talent is what wins in this league and it pulled Toronto back into the game.
The Morgan Rielly goal that tied it 3-3 saw Tavares take the puck in stride off the rush, pull it up between his legs and sauce it over Filip Hronek’s stick and onto Rielly’s blade. Then, after Detroit went back ahead, Tavares tied it again with 7.6 seconds left in regulation by jumping in front of Red Wings goalie Jonathan Bernier at the same moment he was tipping home a Jake Gardiner point shot.
"When he’s at the net it doesn’t matter how wide the puck’s going I feel like he’s always tipping it in," said teammate Kasperi Kapanen, who scored the overtime winner. "He’s always dangerous. Obviously it’s pretty special to see that."
"I’m just happy I got a stick on it," added Tavares, who now has 24 goals through 37 games — the fastest scoring pace he’s ever had in this, his 10th NHL season.
The Leafs have a franchise-best 25 wins by Christmas, eclipsing their previous best of 24 through 37 games in 1946-47. Last year at this time they had 22.
It was the potential to take this organization to heights not seen in two generations that ultimately brought Tavares home. In Rielly, Marner, Auston Matthews and William Nylander, he saw the makings of a young core capable of special things.
It meant he didn’t have to be a saviour, and didn’t have to perform above the level he established as a member of the New York Islanders.
"I’m just trying to be myself and play my game," said Tavares.
Perhaps that’s why this has been such a great fit.
Even with his pedigree as a former No. 1 draft pick, Hart Trophy finalist and Olympic gold medallist, there was no way to know how long it would take him to adjust to new surroundings.
Then Tavares scored in his first regular-season game and added a hat trick in his third. He’s on pace for a 53-goal campaign despite never previously topping 40 and there’s little doubt it’s sustainable given the ridiculous passes he gets from Marner and his net-front role on a lethal power-play unit.
Those two nearly hooked up for the overtime winner on Sunday after Marner found Tavares alone in front with a circus-like pass between his legs. That would have been goal No. 25 had the puck not rolled just as Tavares shot it.
"I probably should have put that one in," he said. "I thought I had a good part of the net up top. He made a hell of a play."
A big hurdle awaits Tavares on the other side of the holiday break with his first game against the Islanders since he left coming here on Saturday.
However, any fans of that organization still bitter about his decision to leave should consider how Islanders management never once surrounded him with the kind of talent he has here in Toronto.
Prior to puck drop on Sunday, Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill explained the challenge of facing the Leafs thusly: "The thing with Marner is it’s not Marner. It’s the whole crew. You know, so it’s not one guy. The best way to contain any of those guys is make ‘em play defence. If they have the puck and they’re allowed to dance and they’re attacking up the ice and they’re playing in the O-zone, they’re going to make plays and they’re going to make you pay."
No wonder Tavares is having so much fun. He’s the same guy he always was, which is no small feat in itself, and he’s the key cog in a team that looks like it could be a juggernaut.
"It’s kind of crazy around here," said Leafs forward Trevor Moore, minutes after his NHL debut on Sunday. "You say ‘woah’ a lot on the bench."