UNIONDALE, N.Y. — Were you to go back to July 1, 2018 and revisit the John Tavares decision, you would be hard-pressed to find a neutral observer who didn’t understand the choice from a purely hockey perspective.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, with a stable of budding young superstars, appeared to be on a more meteoric path than the New York Islanders he left behind.
Except it hasn’t yet worked out that way.
Sixteen months later, and ahead of Tavares’s third trip back to Nassau Coliseum in enemy colours Wednesday, the post-JT Islanders have more regular-season wins (60-55), a better points percentage (.653-.604) and more playoff series under their belt (2-1) than the Leafs do.
It may be the ultimate reminder of the “we before me” culture that permeates the sport.
Stars are nice — necessary, even — but the performance of the collective whole usually drives results. And the stingy Islanders, thriving under head coach Barry Trotz and allowing the fewest goals per game since the start of last season, have found a formula the Leafs are still searching for.
That’s why the significance of Wednesday’s game for Toronto has nothing to do with settling old scores for Tavares.
“That’s dead and buried, kind of thing,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “He’s been through it and so the emotional side for him [isn’t as significant]. I mean he spent a long time here, he probably knew a good restaurant to go last night. It’s easier for him that way. …
“In reality, it’s us vs. them here tonight. They need two points, we need two points. It’s important.”
None of this is to suggest that Tavares made the wrong choice in free agency, or that it’s been addition by subtraction here on Long Island. He remains a top-tier player and he’s performed about as well as could be expected since signing a $77-million, seven-year deal with the Leafs.
However, his experience underlines how unpredictable things can be in the sport.
For Tavares, the allure of coming home and being close to family played a large role in his decision to choose Toronto over the Islanders and four other finalists. Since doing so, he got married to wife Aryne and became a father to son, Jace, in September.
He was named the 25th captain in Leafs history on opening night.
There’s been a lot of positives — including a career-best 47 goals and 88 points last season — and there are still more than five and a half years remaining on his contract to achieve something even more memorable in Toronto.
Tavares was showered with boos and much worse during his first trip back to Long Island in February. Fans burned Islanders sweaters bearing his name in the parking lot beforehand and someone threw a rubber snake in his direction during warmups.
It was a wild scene, but it hasn’t changed how Tavares feels about the area where he spent nine seasons to start his NHL career: “No, not really. It’s a very passionate fanbase that loves their Islanders.”
“The place will always have great meaning for me,” he added. “It had a huge impact on my career and my life.”
His biggest professional concern these days is getting the 9-6-4 Leafs back on track.
After driving the bus offensively for the team last season, the Tavares line has been ineffective at 5-on-5. He had 33 goals and 60 points in that game state a year ago and only has two 5-on-5 goals to show for his 12 games played so far.
Now, injuries have been a major contributing factor to the decline — and Tavares does still have 11 points when factoring in his power play and four-on-four contributions.
But the Leafs are looking for more dominance at even strength.
When Tavares looks to his left on Wednesday night, he’ll see Zach Hyman playing on a surgically repaired right knee in his first action since April 23. To his right is speedster Kasperi Kapanen, who struggled mightily while playing the off-wing with Tavares and Mitch Marner earlier in the season but should be more comfortable replacing the injured Marner on his strong side.
“That line’s never kind of — well, it hasn’t been a line this year,” Babcock said Tuesday. “We’ve got to find a way for those guys all to be productive. That’s their job, that’s why we’re 20 games in and we’re still searching, right?
“We thought we were going to have something worked out by today and it’s not worked out.”