It’s a massive, franchise-altering event for two NHL clubs.
For one, an extraordinary upgrade. For the other, a devastating loss.
Of the many, many elements there are to unpack about the John Tavares free agent signing with the Maple Leafs, that’s what sets this transaction apart from the other occasions in NHL history when major stars have moved from one team to another.
In most instances, the team that lost the star wasn’t left completely destroyed, but that’s what the New York Islanders are today. The dreams of breathing life back into a once-proud franchise have taken a major hit. Even worse, a player they drafted first overall and treasured for nine years as their captain and franchise player now tells the world it was his dream all along to play for another team, his hometown Leafs. That hurts.
How do the Islanders explain this to their already withered fan base, a fan base that has been mistreated more than any other in the NHL, a fan base that has seen the team win just one playoff series in 25 years and has been forced to follow the club as it played out of an deteriorating arena in Uniondale, then shifted to an inadequate basketball arena in Brooklyn, and is now looking to move some of its games back to Uniondale while it tries to build a new rink at Belmont Park?
How do you explain to those fans that ownership and management was clearly caught unaware of the extent to which Tavares secretly dreamt of playing for the Leafs, and because of that, didn’t trade him last summer or at the 2018 NHL trade deadline when it was still possible to recoup other significant assets?
That’s what sets this signing apart. The Leafs vault into the NHL elite with a centre ice corps possibly second to only Pittsburgh, while the Islanders, so encouraged by the hiring of Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz in recent days, are left with a handful of quality young players but a difficult future after losing their franchise player in the prime of his career for absolutely nothing in return.
Rarely has the impact been so great for two teams, and in such opposite ways.
Edmonton wasn’t devastated in 1988 when Wayne Gretzky was traded. In fact, the Oilers won the Stanley Cup in 1990. Washington was surprised when Scott Stevens became one of the first major free agent signings in NHL history by joining St. Louis, but the Capitals didn’t become also-rans as a result.
It turned out to be costly when Zdeno Chara left Ottawa in 2006 to sign with Boston, but the Senators made the Cup final the year after Chara left. Scott Niedermayer’s departure from New Jersey in 2006 as a free agent to Anaheim was painful for the Devils, but they still made the playoffs the next four years then went all the way to the Cup final in 2012.
You might be able to compare the Tavares situation to that of Reggie Leach, traded from California to Philadelphia in 1974. Leach became a 50-goal scorer and a Conn Smythe winner with the Flyers, while the Golden Seals stayed awful and moved to Cleveland two years after trading Leach. The difference was, however, Leach wasn’t a franchise player with the Seals, and that organization was doomed whether he stayed or departed.
It’s really hard not to feel a little badly for the Islanders, although the general lousiness of the club for almost all of Tavares’s time there was the sign of a chronically dysfunctional organization. This is a team that has done everything so very wrong for a quarter-century and put its future in the hands of Garth Snow for a decade. But under new owners Scott Malkin and Jonathan Ledecky, there has been a genuine, ongoing attempt to straighten out the mess.
Now they lose Tavares after the entire hockey world seemed convinced his preference was to stay on Long Island despite everything that had gone wrong in his nine years there. It feels a little like what happened to the Oilers during the 1990s when star after star left for bigger paycheques elsewhere, except in this case, the Isles entire future was wrapped around this one, single player. And they didn’t understand what he wanted all along.
Plans for the new Islanders arena seem to be progressing well, and the loss of Tavares isn’t likely to wreck those plans. Matt Barzal, meanwhile, is the top new forward, but playing alongside Tavares was hugely helpful. Now, as he heads into his sophomore season, Barzal will face the toughest checkers across the league.
By contrast, in Toronto it’s all unicorns and rainbows. This is the fourth major home run hit by the Leafs in the past five years. First, Tim Leiweke signed Brendan Shanahan away from NHL head offices, then Shanahan convinced Mike Babcock to leave Detroit, shun Buffalo and come to work in Toronto. In 2016, the Leafs won the draft lottery, and the rights to draft Auston Matthews. And now comes Tavares. After decades of missteps, errors and fumbles, suddenly everything is bouncing in favour of the Leafs, it seems. Players seem willing to play here, for less. Instead of Noah Hanifin, they drafted Mitch Marner. Toronto kids now litter the roster. After years of searching for a No. 1 goalie after Ed Belfour left town, they found Freddie Andersen.
The closest free agent signing in Leaf history in terms of impact to Tavares would be adding goalie Curtis Joseph 20 years ago. But Tavares comes with the extra weight of being a local lad, important for a team that hasn’t had an honest-to-goodness homegrown superstar since Charlie Conacher in the 1930s.
Incredibly, it’s been that long.
It also instantly legitimizes new GM Kyle Dubas, who recently lifted a Calder Cup with the rest of the Toronto Marlies organization and has now demonstrated that he’s capable of landing the biggest of fish. It also suggests that when Shanahan had to choose between Lamoriello, Dubas and Mark Hunter, he chose well.
This signing alone doesn’t make the Leafs Cup favourites. They’re still young, and they’ve got holes, and the signing of Tavares will eventually create thorny cap problems. But it gives Dubas all kinds of flexibility, including trade options to bring in a big name on the back end.
Having too much talent, and having to figure out ways to pay too many star forwards, is not a problem the Leafs have ever had to deal with. Shanahan burned this thing to the ground, and with remarkable speed, has quickly built it back up to such an extent that what Steven Stamkos turned his nose up at two years ago, Tavares gratefully accepted on Sunday.
For the Leafs, the timing is perfect in so many ways. For the Islanders, the timing couldn’t be worse. It’s such a dramatic shift of talent from a mediocre team to a strong team without anything going the other way, it seems almost unfair, as if there should be compensation of some kind given to the Islanders.
Lamoriello always said he believed the Leafs were the New York Yankees of hockey. Well, this transaction is very Yankee-like. Pursuing and acquiring the best talent, leaving less powerful teams with nothing.
It’s a earth-shaking transaction. One team stands triumphant, the other is buried under the rubble.