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John Tavares and the New York Islanders Meet Again – Five Seasons After Their Split

Five seasons after parting ways, the New York Islanders came to town to face John Tavares and the Toronto Maple Leafs, showing just how much both teams have changed since that fateful split.
John Tavares

"Johnny's always Johnny, man," laughed Islanders forward Mat Barzal on Monday morning as his team prepared to face the Toronto Maple Leafs later that night. 

"I don't think he changes too much about himself wherever he goes." 

Those who have played alongside John Tavares at pretty much any level of hockey would tend to agree with Barzal's statement. Tavares is an athlete you can set your watch to. Consistency is more or less his trademark, after all, with Tavares' point totals, game preparation habits and overall demeanour never changing, regardless of the circumstances. 

It's that very consistency that made his split with the Islanders back in 2018 so shocking.

Five seasons have passed since Tavares chose his hometown team over the Islanders in what was, at the time, the most earth-shaking free-agent saga of the salary cap era. This was John freakin' Tavares, for Pete's sake! The man didn't make waves, he rolled with them. 

In a league built on conformity, Tavares conformed harder than anyone. And yet, when free agency opened on July 1, Tavares zigged when nearly everyone expected him to zag, officially leaving behind the only NHL franchise he'd ever known to join the Maple Leafs and drop a bomb on the NHL landscape that, in turn, brought forth the dawn of a new era for both his current and past employer. 

It's only fitting that Tavares' 300th game as a Maple Leaf would come against the team he left all those years ago. Hockey sure can be poetic when it wants to be. And, regardless of how much either side tries to downplay it, these reunions still carry quite a bit of weight. 

"I think it's still a game he circles on his calendar, for sure," said Leafs forward Auston Matthews. 

"I mean, you spend that much time there, and what he did for that organization, I know it means a lot to him and it means a lot to everybody in this room."

Ask the Islanders, and you'll get a far different answer. 

"Just another game," said Cal Clutterbuck. 

"That's it." 

The Islanders insist that Tavares is still a well-liked figure in their room despite his free-agent decision all those years ago. Facing Tavares is something they get up for not out of revenge, but out of respect for the talent he carries. 

"It's just fun to compete against him," said Barzal of his former linemate. 

"He's such a great competitor and really is one of the most focused guys I've ever seen." 

Barzal's words could be a case of some good old-fashioned competitive posturing, of course. But even if they are true – which is still very much up for debate – those warm and fuzzy feelings certainly were not apparent in the immediate aftermath of Tavares' departure. His was an absence that left a massive hole in the heart of the Islanders organization – one that forced the club to shift its entire identity to chart a course forward. 

The Islanders with Tavares were a team built around one star, with management fleshing out its forward corps with scoring wingers who could benefit from their star captain. Tavares was the engine of the Islanders' lineup. His most important asset was elevating the play of those around him. 

The post-Tavares era has instead been defined by a collective effort from within. The 2018-19 season was the first of the Lou Lamoriello-Barry Trotz partnership, with the new leadership turning the Islanders into the defensive standard of the modern era, set by a roster crafted by a no-nonsense GM and deployed by a coach who knew how to squeeze the most out of each and every one of his players. 

The Tavares-led Leafs have taken an entirely different approach in their time together. The longtime Islanders captain entered a locker room loaded with talent upon his arrival in Toronto, becoming the first of what would become three different Maple Leafs forwards with double-digit annual salaries. 

Whereas the Islanders compensated with a balanced lineup that featured no real crown jewel atop its heap, the Maple Leafs became driven by their stars, using the Tavares-Matthews-Marner trio as lynchpins around which to build their foundation. 

The results have obviously been varied; a 164-110-34 record and six playoff series victories for the Islanders, a 181-93-36 record and zero series wins for the Maple Leafs. 

Neither team has reached the top of hockey's highest mountain. And yet, throughout it all, Tavares' contributions have been as reliable as ever: 129 goals as an Islander, 129 goals as a Maple Leaf. 

There's that consistency again. 

The Islanders, in fact, have maintained remarkable roster consistency in their post-Tavares era, keeping together a group of roughly eight or nine foundational players for the entire half-decade. The Maple Leafs, on the other hand, have experienced massive turnover, shuttling in and out a steady line of depth pieces in any given year. 

Tavares, at the very least, has managed to keep things together amid Toronto's uncertainty – much like he did on Long Island. 

"I go back to the day I was hired, and I had to fly out to Arizona," reminisced Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe, who took over the job midway through the 2019-20 season following Mike Babcock's firing. 

"At the time, John had come back (to Toronto) for a funeral and had to go back, as well. So, he and I flew together and spent a significant amount of time just giving him a sense of what I planned on doing and where the team was at, and I thought it really helped set me up for success." 

It's ironic, really. Even as both teams embarked upon remotely different paths forward, the man who kickstarted their respective journeys never changed. And it doesn't look like he plans to anytime soon. 

"Just getting to see him day-in and day-out, just what it takes to be so elite and that longevity and maintaining your body," said Barzal of his former captain. 

"He is definitely the poster boy for recovery and working hard, for sure." 

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