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The quiet turn and walk away: Why pending free agents offer no guarantees

Tavares planned on being an Islander forever. Then he left. NHL GMs should remind themselves of that on deadline day.

John Tavares wasn’t just adamant the Islanders could retain his services. He all but guaranteed it. “I think I’ve always shown my commitment, my appreciation and my desire to play on Long Island,” Tavares told Sportsnet 590 on July 26, 2017. “I’d love for that to continue for the long haul. Some of the greatest players have been able to spend their entire career somewhere. I hope I’m in that same position.”

How about April 9, 2018, almost nine months later? “This is obviously where I hope to be,” he told NHL.com.

These little memory joggers aren’t intended to slam Tavares. We’ve all made pledges we couldn’t keep. Sometimes things change when it’s time for a final decision on a major life commitment. Our hearts lead us where we didn’t expect them to and/or, as in the Tavares example, other parties make strong cases for us to change our minds.

The point is that, even when a team’s star and captain declares borderline certainty about his future, nothing is absolute when it comes to unrestricted free agency, especially when a player reaches the June negotiation window unsigned and gets a taste of what other teams have to offer. If Tavares, The Guy Who Was Never Leaving, can leave and choose The Team That Was Never Going To Sign Him, anything can happen. This case study, anomaly or not, should burn itself into GMs’ minds at the NHL trade deadline.

Pending UFA Mark Stone, for instance, has stated publicly and repeatedly he loves being an Ottawa Senator. He’d also likely be awarded the captaincy if he re-signs. But what happens if he and GM Pierre Dorion get close to the Feb. 25 trade deadline without a contract? Dorion has to think about Tavares in this situation, not only regarding Stone, but also with fellow UFA Matt Duchene. The Sens, in this case, would owe it to their fan base to test the market for Stone and Duchene. The return for both would be franchise-altering. The rebuilding Senators, who traded their coveted 2019 first-round pick away to get Duchene, desperately need more picks and prospects. Former Isles GM Garth Snow dug his heels in approaching the 2018 deadline, steadfastly refusing to move Tavares under any circumstances, and that may have cost Snow his job. It would be a massive failure for Dorion if he gambles on his UFAs re-signing, doesn’t trade them and then watches them leave on July 1.

The Stone and Duchene situations are obvious to figure out, given the Sens are rebuilders. But what about the bubble teams? Jeff Skinner is having the season of his life with Buffalo. The Sabres have the cap space to re-sign him even if he sets a career high in goals and commands a cap hit north of $7 million. But this team is also bouncing around the edges of the playoff picture. It would sting to deal Skinner away when he could help Buffalo make the playoffs. But what if GM Jason Botterill can’t get Skinner re-signed? Again, one wonders if the Tavares situation might make a GM rethink things. The Sabres’ rebuild isn’t complete. They could use the futures that Skinner would net them if they know he isn’t coming back.

The exception to the Tavares rule when it comes to UFAs at the trade deadline is the contending teams. Tampa Bay felt it could go deep in the 2016 playoffs and considered UFA-in-waiting Steven Stamkos a key, free “rental,” so they kept him. He ended up re-signing. Toronto did the same last spring with James van Riemsdyk, lost him for nothing and didn’t regret it, because he was a key cog on a team good enough to set a franchise record for points. We could thus see 2018-19’s most scrutinized UFAs, Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, remain Blue Jackets. They’d be crucial parts of a playoff drive on a good Columbus team.

Then again, if someone offers GM Jarmo Kekalainen talented players who (a) have term on their contracts and (b) can keep his team competitive now, perhaps the Tavares Effect comes into play again. No one likes losing stars for nothing if it can be helped.

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