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Tavares’ focus is on Islanders playoff hopes, but that won’t stop contract questions

John Tavares' pending free agency has been one of the season's biggest stories, but the Islanders captain isn't going to let questions about his future distract him from New York's present playoff hopes.

First things first: It’s pretty clear John Tavares and Doug Weight were involved in two different games Wednesday night when the New York Islanders lost 5-0 to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Perhaps he was protecting his team, but Weight actually said he was satisfied with his team’s compete level in a game in which it gave up 50 shots, was beaten to almost every loose puck, was decidedly outworked in every facet of the game, lost 58 percent of the faceoffs and had only nine shots midway through the game.

“We battled. Our guys battled,” Weight said after the game. “We worked and we didn’t succeed. This wasn’t an effort that was lax or lazy. It wasn’t. It was disappointing.”

Tavares, meanwhile, had a slightly different view of the proceedings, particularly seen through the prism of a 4-1 loss to the Florida Panthers on home ice the night before that displayed many of the same tendencies. “It’s really unacceptable the level we’re playing at,” Tavares said. “We’re not going to win many hockey games or really be in it the way we played the last couple of nights. The way we’ve played the last couple nights is not even close to what we need to be to get where we need to get to. It’s hard to be at a certain standard every night, especially in this league, with how competitive it is. We’ve just got to be a lot better.”

Now to the really important stuff. Are the Islanders and Tavares on the same page when it comes to his future with the organization? In case you’ve spent the past little while cut off from the rest of the world, Tavares is due to become an unrestricted free agent July 1 and a cottage industry has sprouted up amidst the speculation surrounding what Tavares will ultimately do. There are more moving parts here than a Swiss watch, from where exactly the vagabond Islanders will play for the next couple of years while their new arena is being built to the roster construction and whether or not Tavares sees a championship-calibre team on the horizon.

But anyone expecting Tavares to make a decision anytime soon will almost certainly be disappointed. This one is going to wire, much the way it did with Steven Stamkos and the Tampa Bay Lightning two years ago. Anyone who knows Tavares also knows that he’s meticulous, methodical and analytical and there’s no reason to believe he won’t use all the time available to him to make the biggest decision of his professional life. “When the time is right, I’ll make my decision,” Tavares said. “Everything is still great with the team. We’re keeping things open and communication has been great.”

Tavares has done an outstanding job compartmentalizing this issue as he goes through a season in which he’s still on pace for a career high in goals (41) and points (90). There is no indication that any of this uncertainty has affected any part of his game. He knows the Islanders want him back, and it appears they’re willing to pay whatever Tavares wants in money and term to make it happen. For his part, Tavares is still gathering information. And there’s even less indication it will get more difficult for him as the year goes on and the questions intensify. Nor will he allow those questions force him into tipping his hand.

“I don’t see letting the questions be the reason why I make a decision,” he said. “I think we’re all professionals. I try to approach the game the same way. The way I’ve played the game since I was a kid…I just try to have that same type of motivation and that same passion for it. I don’t see why circumstances outside of being on the ice really change that.”

In the meantime, Tavares is focused on trying to get the Islanders into the playoffs, a feat that became that much more difficult with their performance the past two games. They’re only one point out of a playoff spot, but the past two games put them at 52 for the season, giving the Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes two games in hand on them.

And making the playoffs is actually pretty important in all of this. One of the biggest factors in Tavares’ decision will be whether or not he sees a team with which he can win. Making the playoffs and giving some of the team’s young players that experience would be another step in that direction. The Islanders are building and are probably a defenseman and a stable goaltender away from truly contending, but the pieces are there.

“I think anyone in my position…if I get to that point, will factor everything into their decision,” Tavares said. “Everything plays a part. That’s why I want to do everything I can to help this team make the playoffs.”

Tavares is a loyal guy and as it stands at this moment, there’s still probably a better chance he stays with the Islanders than he leaves. But do not be surprised if he allows himself to be courted in the week leading up to free agency, like Stamkos did two years ago, before re-signing. And when you let it get to that stage, anything can happen.

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