“Quick: name one big-ticket unrestricted free agent of the salary-cap era who got to market and made a major impact with his team…other than Zdeno Chara.”
The question, posted by New Jersey Devils GM Ray Shero last spring, stumped me. After I hung up the phone, I thought of a name. I wanted to call back and proclaim, “Marian Hossa!” but it wasn’t really necessary. I understood Shero’s point. In the modern era of unrestricted free agency, it’s rare for the star signees to make franchise-altering impacts. Chara carved out a Hall-of-Fame career after joining the Bruins July 1, 2006. Hossa played crucial roles on three championship Chicago Blackhawks teams after signing July 1, 2009. But they’re the exceptions. For every Hossa or Chara, we get a dozen Alexander Semins or David Clarksons.
A big reason why it’s so rare for UFAs to flourish relative to expectations: most of the most best UFAs don’t actually make it to market. Anze Kopitar inked his 10-year, $80-million deal about six months out in 2016. Steven Stamkos got as far as the negotiation window in June 2016 but chose the comfort, Cup contention and tax breaks his existing squad provided in Tampa.
So John Tavares, then, had the chance to break the mold last summer. The question of whether he’d become the “best UFA of all time” might have seemed like a clickbait term, but it came from a real place. It was so rare for a borderline superstar player smack in the middle of his prime to get to open market. He had the opportunity to make an impact not seen since Chara and Hossa.
Flash forward to Monday night in Toronto, when the Maple Leafs defeated the Florida Panthers 7-5. A deflection off defenseman Aaron Ekblad + a tap-in one-timer on a feed from Zach Hyman + two juicy rebounds off Roberto Luongo’s pads = Goals 42, 43, 44 and 45 for Tavares, giving him the highest total by any Leaf since Dave Andreychuk scored 53 in 1993-94. Tavares now trails the Washington Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin by three goals for the NHL lead, with six games remaining for each player. The last Leaf to lead the league in goals: Gaye Stewart in 1945-46.
Tavares has smashed his career high in goals by seven, and his next point will be his 87th, giving him a new personal best. So how has he done it?
Step 1 is preparation. As multiple teammates pointed out after Monday’s game, Tavares is meticulous, never breaking his daily routine, eating right, spending a lot of time in the trainer’s room getting properly stretched and “rolled out,” keeping himself in optimal condition.
“His everyday demeanor…” said Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly. “It’s easy to go into the rink early once a week and do treatment and roll out when you feel like it. He does it every single day. It’s not that easy. It’s a long season, and he’s in there every single day doing the same thing. He’s got a routine he likes to stick to, he’s been very good at that, and that’s been the most impressive thing, his attitude toward his job and what he does on a day-to-day basis.”
Step 2 was establishing instant chemistry with linemates Hyman and Mitch Marner in camp. The trio have been on the ice almost three times as often as any other line combo for the Leafs this season, per leftwinglock.com.
“There’s a lot of trust in each other’s game, and we just read off each other really well,” Tavares said. “From the start of the year, it was just great how comfortable we felt with each other right away. (They’re) two tremendous players with great skill sets, so it made it that much easier for me in making the transition, stepping right in, not having to worry about doing too much and just trying to be myself.”
As Hyman said after the game Monday, in which he locked in his first 20-goal season, it’s been his job to dig, Marner’s job to make plays and Tavares’ job to finish. None of Tavares’ raw skills stand out as particularly elite, but few players are stronger on their sticks or better at finding holes in defenses. That’s why Tavares has been so deadly in close this season. He leads the NHL in 5-on-5 goals and ranks second in individual high-danger shot attempts at 5-on-5. Step 3 of his banner year is consistently finding space close to the net.
“With the players I’m playing with, ‘Mitchy’ and ‘Hymie,’ with the team we have, they make so many plays that you just try get yourself available,” Tavares said. “Being around the net on the power play a lot, I just try to get myself in a good spot to find loose change and kind of get lost.”
Keeping yourself positioned in high-percentage scoring areas lends nicely to consistency. Tavares has at least four goals in every month. He averages 0.93 points per game or higher in every month. His longest points drought is two games, and his longest goal drought is five games.
Tavares’ final season numbers project to 49-44-93. He’s still a long shot to overtake Ovechkin and win the Rocket Richard but, regardless, Tavares makes a strong case for the best Year-1 season ever by a UFA. Chara finished 20th in Norris voting his first season as a Bruin. Hossa played 57 games in 2009-10 and won the Cup but had three goals in 22 playoff games that season. He did damage the year before on a one-year UFA deal with Detroit, too, going 40-31-71 in 74 games. Ed Belfour was a crucial add for the Dallas Stars in 1997, but that was pre-cap.
The best competition for Tavares might actually be Scott Niedermayer. After the Ducks signed him as a UFA in summer 2005, he finished second in Norris voting two straight seasons, winning the Cup and the Conn Smythe Trophy in the second. Unless the Leafs miraculously improve their defense in the next few weeks, we’re unlikely to see Tavares on a deep playoff run in Year 1 of his deal, so maybe Niedermayer has the edge.
Whatever happens, though, Tavares has delivered a rare season in which a UFA with astronomical expectations manages to meet or exceed them.
“We knew what kind of player he was coming into the season,” Marner said. “He’s fulfilled all the expectations, he’s done a great job in the locker room and on the ice, and it’s been a lot of fun playing with him.”