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Why John Tavares and the Leafs chose each other: five questions, five answers

TORONTO – The literal temperature of the room epitomized what John Tavares was walking into. On a sweltering, humid Toronto day with extreme heat warnings issued throughout the city, the ice level at newly renamed Scotiabank Arena, formerly the Air Canada Centre, didn’t provide much relief. It was hot and sweaty in there too as a crush of reporters gathered in front of the podium in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ media center, eyes, lights and cameras trained on Tavares, flanked by press-conference wingers Brendan Shanahan and Kyle Dubas on either side of him. Tavares braved the oven-like atmosphere, ready to face seven years of attention unlike anything he experienced in his nine seasons as a New York Islander.

Tavares looked sweaty, exhausted, like a guy who’d been through many sleepless nights over the past week – because he had. But he also looked relieved. The long decision process for salary-cap era’s highest-profile UFA was over. In the end, Tavares narrowed his decision to the Islanders and Maple Leafs. He was confident and deeply happy to sign a seven-year, $77-million deal with the team he loved as a child, but it was a painful decision to leave the Islanders, too.

“I just felt like my heart was in two places: where I’m from, and a place where I’ve been for a long time and helped me become the man I am today,” Tavares told reporters at Sunday’s press conference. “My gut was tearing apart, my heart was tearing apart figuring out what I wanted to do. And yesterday was one heck of a day…I was walking up and down the pool at my house trying to get a sense of what I wanted to do and the path I wanted to take. I just felt this opportunity was just so rare.”

How did the Leafs swoop in and sell Tavares on that opportunity, and how will he fit into the team, from a hockey standpoint and financial standpoint? Let’s break Sunday’s monster news into five commonly asked questions, answered by people directly involved in making the deal happen.

1. WHAT ATTRACTED TAVARES TO THE LEAFS MOST?

Tavares took in-person meetings this past week at CAA’s California offices with six teams: the Islanders, Leafs, San Jose Sharks, Dallas Stars, Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning. As Leafs GM Dubas explained Sunday, Tavares arrived just as prepared as the people making pitches to him.

“He was very, very methodical,” Dubas said. “He was very well prepared for the process. You go talk to a lot of free agents every year, usually not as high-profile as this, and he was by far the most prepared I’ve ever seen. He walked in and had a very detailed list of questions he wanted answered about our style of play and how (coach Mike Babcock) was going to use him, my vision for the team, how we were going to move it ahead, how we were going to keep the core together, what our strategy was.”

Personnel wise, the Leafs were obviously appealing to Tavares, who gave glowing reviews Sunday when asked about the Leafs’ young stars. He said he was impressed with Auston Matthews’ craftiness and ability to take away pucks and play a 200-foot game while still being a great goal scorer – that he’s already a better two-way player than Tavares was at the same age. He singled out Mitch Marner’s ability to control a game with his puck skills. As Babcock told reporters Sunday, the tentative plan will be to try Tavares on a line with Zach Hyman on the left wing and Marner on the right, with Matthews centering Patrick Marleau and William Nylander. Nazem Kadri would presumably helm a speedy trio with Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen in that case.

With the Leafs already coming off a 105-point season, their best in franchise history, and so many of their top players in their early 20s, the pure hockey selling point was pretty easy for Tavares. A big reason why he didn’t opt for the much-rumored one year, max-cap, $15.9-million deal: he doesn’t see a short-term window of success for this team. As he put it, the window is “all seven years” of his contract. He sees seven seasons and seven chances at a Stanley Cup, and he was attracted to the team’s on-ice identity, too.

“You look at the depth up front and the youth, how young they are, the energy they play with, the pace they play with and the creativity they play with,” Tavares said. “And I know going through this process this week, I started to think a lot about playing against the teams I was considering. And I just remember how tough the games were this year, how tough they were to play against, just no room or time and space. The defense has been talked about a lot for a little while, and I just remember how tough they were to play against. So it was just the depth they bring and youth and energy and their ability to be creative and a good sense of who they are, their identity and the way they play.”

The excitement of who he’d play with combined with his childhood love of the Leafs made them an irresistible blend of choosing a team with his head and his heart. He fulfills a dream, as he implied by tweeting a picture of himself sleeping with a Leafs blanket as a kid, but he’s also joining a team that was already rising as a long-term championship contender. Adding Tavares, a two-time Hart Trophy finalist who has topped 80 points three times in his career, positions the Leafs as arguably the team to beat in the Eastern Conference now.

2. HOW DID TAVARES BRING HIMSELF TO LEAVE THE ISLANDERS?

Leaving the Islanders was no joke. Asked what he had to say to the franchise and its fans, Tavares almost broke. His lip appeared to quiver as he collected himself. It was an emotional moment.

“That place means a lot to me,” Tavares said. “Everything I’ve been through there, the impact people had on me, the things we went through as a group, the teammates that have been through there. It was such a hard decision because of just really how special it was. It’s a great organization. A tremendous fan base, tremendously loyal, tremendously passionate. If you’ve ever been to a game with Islanders fans, it’s something really unique…What I want to reiterate is, thank you for the impact you’ve made on me. I don’t know if words can describe how much I appreciated my time there, the impact everyone made on me, and I think the organization’s in great hands.”

Tavares also praised “the kid who just won the Calder Trophy,” Mathew Barzal, and insists the Islanders have a bright future, even though zero people in Islanders Nation likely want to hear that kind of sentiment right now. It’s akin to breaking up with someone and telling them, “You’re going to make someone else really happy someday.”

3. HOW WILL THE LEAFS SORT OUT THEIR SALARY-CAP SITUATION NOW?

Tavares very obviously took a discount to join the Leafs at an $11-million AAV. So, yes, the Leafs should be happy with that number, which is a big difference from $15.9 million. But how does the $11-million AAV fit into Toronto’s long-term plan? Nylander is an RFA and needs a new deal this summer, and he’s not a huge problem, as the Leafs have $13.7 million to work with before Nylander signs. He’s the only major contract left to figure out among existing team personnel. Heck, if the Leafs want, they can stay aggressive and pursue another major upgrade if it’s a short-term one.

But what on Earth happens next summer when Matthews and Marner both become RFAs? There’s a decent chance they’ll combine to command $20 million or more. The Leafs have a year to figure out their extensions but may be wise to lock the pair up now in case a season with Tavares in the lineup spikes their stats to career bests – projected linemate Marner’s especially. The Leafs would have about $29 million to work with should the cap stay the same for 2019-20, but blueliners Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey become UFAs, too, and Kapanen is also an RFA.

Dubas will have some salary-cap gymnastics to worry about, but Stan Bowman in Chicago and Jim Rutherford in Pittsburgh have proven teams can win Cups with top-heavy cap models that pay a core of star players massive money while relying on the development system for cheap but effective replacements. The Leafs have the latter covered given their AHL affiliate just won the Calder Cup and that the franchise placed first overall in THN Future Watch 2018’s ranking of development systems, which was compiled by a panel of NHL scouts and team executives.

Dubas didn’t tackle the 2019-and-beyond cap question head-on Sunday but implied he definitely felt good about the team’s finances.

“Certainly this year we still have a healthy amount of cap space,” Dubas said. “Eventually, when our younger players continue to develop and impress, they’re going to want to be paid what the market bears for them, and that’s no problem on our end. We’re well situated to handle that when it comes, and we’ll always remain flexible. John, today, it was every evident he could’ve gotten more elsewhere. That sets a great tone for our organization. He obviously wanted to be here versus going out and getting the most money. That’s not a surprise given his character.”

Does that mean Matthews and Marner follow Tavares’ example and accept a bit less money than expected in the name of winning? We’ve seen Sidney Crosby do it for years in Pittsburgh.

4. WILL TAVARES BE THE LEAFS’ NEXT CAPTAIN?

It sounds like the captaincy decision won’t happen soon – perhaps not even this season unless Tavares or someone else really distances himself from the pack as a defined leader in camp.

Tavares on the captaincy: “That never came up in our conversations over this past week. They definitely expressed me coming in and wanting to use my experiences as a captain and things they believe I can use as leadership qualities.”

Dubas on the captaincy: “We want to see how the group works together. As time goes on, we’ll evaluate where we’re at, and if there’s one player in our group that deserves that honor to be the captain of the team, we’ll make that decision then. I know it’s a popular question here, but it’s not something that can be rushed on our end, because it is an important distinction to be the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs. We feel we have some great leaders, John among them, and we’ll see how it fits together this season and perhaps beyond, and we’ll make that call when it becomes apparent to us all.”

5. HOW WILL TAVARES HANDLE THE PRESSURE OF PLAYING IN TORONTO?

Even Tavares admitted Sunday the hockey-mad Toronto market was a new thing for him, an unknown, so it remains to be seen how long it’ll take him to adjust, but he also sees the pressure as a positive, a sign he’s part of a team with special expectations.

“I can say that when you grow up somewhere, it’s sometimes even harder for those players to come home,” said Leafs president Shanahan. “They have to feel safe. And this is a place where they’re going to be given every opportunity to have success, because it’s not just you, it’s your family, it’s the people you grew up with that are going to go on that journey with you. Certainly we understood that was an important part for John and his family, and this is the place where he grew up a Leaf fan, and we had to do our part for him in terms of the on-ice product, something that would be attractive to a competitive person like John.”

Competitiveness trumped any fear of the crushing pressure. And for what it’s worth, Dubas joked Sunday his time as an GM of the OHL’s Sault St. Marie Greyhounds was more of a fish-bowl experience because of the small-town mentality in which everyone knows everyone. In Tavares’ case, sharing a team with fellow big names like Matthews should spread the pressure across multiple sets of shoulders anyway.