Why Tavares didn’t meet with Canadiens: ‘I can only play for one team’

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John Tavares prepares to do a television interview following a news conference in Toronto after signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Chris Young/CP)

TORONTO – With the Montreal Canadiens and the franchise’s travelling reporters rolling into town Monday, we are reminded that the team most desperately in need of signing John Tavares this summer wasn’t even granted a seat at the table.

The new Toronto Maple Leafs centreman was asked why Habs GM Marc Bergevin, who had the cap space to accommodate his $77-million payday, was not invited to make a pitch in those intense courting days leading up to July 1.

“There’s a lot of great teams, a lot of great franchises in the NHL,” the diplomatic Tavares said, following a practice that united one of the league’s most lethal power-play units.

“I felt humbled to have the interest I had. You feel very fortunate to be in the position I was in. I met with the teams I felt were in the best situations that could be good fits for me and see what there was to offer. That’s why I picked those six teams, including New York. Those were the teams that I felt were the best fit that I wanted to interview with.”

Tavares, of course, chose his hometown Maple Leafs over the five other finalists: the Sharks, Lightning, Stars, Bruins and Islanders.

Had Tavares joined any of those six lineups, he’d be complementing an already elite centreman or two. The Isles have reigning Calder champ Mathew Barzal. Tampa boasts Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point. San Jose rolls out future Hall of Famer Joe Thornton and Logan Couture. Boston touts four-time Selke winner Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci. Dallas is led by Tyler Seguin.

“The players recruit the players,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock says. “Good players aren’t coming to be by themselves. They’re coming because they think they have a chance to win.”

No rival provides a greater contrast to Toronto’s ridiculous centre depth — 30-goal man Nazem Kadri runs the third line — than the Canadiens.

Montreal’s middle men include Phillip Danault, who scored eight goals last season; Max Domi, who scored nine and is transitioning from the wing; Matthew Peca, who’s skated in all of 20 NHL games; and 35-year-old checker Tomas Plekanec.

The fact the Canadiens could’ve used a true No. 1 like Tavares meant more than a few furious phone calls were placed to local sports talk radio programs when he showed no interest in meeting with Montreal.

“Obviously when I came to play there when I was with New York last year, people asked me questions about it,” Tavares said.

“I can only play for one team. I’m not here to make everyone happy. I had to do what’s best for me, and I felt this situation was the perfect fit for me and the right timing in my career.”

That Toronto already had a young bona fide No. 1 pivot in Auston Matthews helped Tavares’ decision. He’s a firm believer that steel sharpens steel. On Montreal, he would’ve been on an island.

“Just being around him, getting to know him as a person too, you can see the presence he has and the impact he has on and off the ice,” Tavares said.

“He’s going to make me a better player.

“Every day, we go against each other in practice and you see what makes him successful. You pick up certain habits he does. When you have guys at the level and you get to go against him in practice, it’s just going to make you better.”

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