Maple Leafs’ Tavares not worried about keeping the band together

John Tavares speaks on the Nylander situation and Brendan Shanahan's recent comments and philosophy on keeping the young core together on a budget.

TORONTO — When John Tavares took a call from Auston Matthews two weeks before free agency, there was a lot he wanted to know about the Toronto Maple Leafs.

But the most important piece of information he sought from that conversation was about Matthews himself. To wit: If Tavares decided to come to Toronto, did Matthews intend to stick around for the long haul and play with him?

He likely wouldn’t be standing in the Maple Leafs dressing room now if he didn’t get the assurances he did.

“It’s why I felt strongly [that] things can work here,” Tavares said Friday. “I’ve always talked about, if I was to leave Long Island, I didn’t want to go somewhere and subtract.”

So, even with a full-scale debate now raging around the Leafs and whether they’ll be able to keep their core intact, the $11-million centre seems unfazed. Those off-season conversations with Matthews, Mitch Marner and others left him believing he was joining a group that featured complete buy-in and a shared set of goals.

In other words, the very thing president Brendan Shanahan was getting at when he mused about the need for players to follow Tavares’s lead by prioritizing their situation over their salaries at contract time.

Some further context is probably needed on that topic given the firestorm Shanahan’s comments touched off. Tavares didn’t exactly arrive in Toronto as a bargain — he’s the league’s highest-paid player this season and carries its second-highest cap hit — but he could have pushed to reset the bar by asking for $13 million or more after becoming the rare premier UFA to test the open market.

Instead, he took $77 million over seven years, with almost all of it due to be paid in signing bonuses.

“I just tried to do what I felt was comfortable for me and for the team,” said Tavares.

There is room to imagine his younger teammates applying a similar standard and finding a sweet spot in their own negotiations.

For Matthews, that might mean taking a smidge less than the $12.5 million Connor McDavid makes, rather than arguing for the same 16.67 per cent of the cap the Edmonton Oilers gave their captain in 2017 — a figure that would push a potential Matthews ask north of $13.25 million annually.

For Marner, it could mean accepting something close to Leon Draisaitl’s deal ($8.5-million AAV) rather than insisting on Jack Eichel’s ($10-million AAV).

And in the case of William Nylander, who is currently waiting out a contract stalemate back home in Sweden, that could mean moving off his ask of the Draisaitl deal and accepting something more in line with David Pastrnak ($6.67-million AAV) instead.

If each of those things were to happen, it would make roster construction a little less restrictive for the Leafs front office while the organization moves into its window to start challenging for the Stanley Cup. They could keep the band together while making sure each of the foundational young stars gets wealthy.

No matter what you thought of Shanahan’s comments — some didn’t like hearing a former player referencing his own experience from the pre-salary cap NHL — there is undeniable truth to them. The Leafs won’t have the capacity to see Nylander, Marner and Matthews each establish new benchmarks on their second NHL deals.

However, even with Nylander now missing meaningful games, his new teammate doesn’t see it as a sign of trouble on the horizon.

“It’s a negotiation and things take their own time, their own process and sometimes there’s some tough moments through it,” said Tavares. “But I think at the end of the day things will got resolved, and I’m looking forward to hopefully having Willy here as soon as we can.”

In recent years, Tavares was seen as one of the biggest bargains in the league. His second contract with the New York Islanders was worth $33 million over six seasons and he was twice a finalist for the Hart Trophy while carrying that team-friendly $5.5-million AAV.

Still, it was was never a sore point for him.

“I felt like it was setting me up for the rest of my life,” said Tavares.

Plus an even bigger payday awaited.

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