During the 2015-16 season, the big free agency questions centred around Steven Stamkos, only for those to end when the Tampa Bay Lightning locked up their captain to an eight-year, $68-million contract. When this past season began, all eyes shifted to Brent Burns, the Sharks’ standout defenseman, but his contract watch was over in a hurry as he inked an eight-year, $64-million extension less than two months into the season.
And since that time, the biggest and only major will-he-or-won’t-he free agency story left standing is that of John Tavares.
The truth is Tavares has really been the center of much free agency speculation almost since the moment Stamkos signed in Tampa Bay. Part of that, of course, has to do with the fact that Tavares is from the outskirts of Toronto, and the potential for the hometown boy to return to the Maple Leafs has always been enough to work fans in the Big Smoke into a lather. But the larger part of the hubbub surrounding Tavares, the New York Islanders’ captain, is that he’s worth every bit of interest he would draw as a free agent. It would arguably be the biggest free agent sweepstakes the league has seen in some time.
However, that’s only the case if Tavares hits the open market. And from everything Tavares has said, it doesn’t seem as though the two-time Hart Trophy finalist is dead-set on exploring his options come the end of the 2017-18 campaign. Over the past year-plus, Tavares has reiterated his desire to be an Islander now and in the future, and when asked about contract negotiations on Tuesday by TSN, Tavares wouldn’t say where things are headed, but did indicate he’s more than open to remaining in New York.
"I think I'll just keep that all internal," Tavares told TSN. "We've had great, open communication, it's obviously a great place to play, I've enjoyed my time being an Islander and I want that to continue.”
But have the Islanders done enough to make that a reality? Some would argue the team’s performance this past season, one that saw them in the Eastern Conference basement at the midpoint of the season, would be enough to sway Tavares towards free agency. That said, given the way the Islanders played once coach Jack Capuano was replaced with Doug Weight might give Tavares hope that the future is brighter for the Islanders.
From the moment Weight took over, the Islanders were seemingly a different team, and the on-ice performance almost completely reversed course. Over the final 40 games of the Islanders’ season, New York had the league’s fifth-best offense, an outstanding penalty kill and posted a 24-12-4 record. Their 52 points were the second-most in not just the conference but the entire league over the second half of the season, and they accomplished all of this while playing in what was inarguably the most difficult division. On top of that, the Islanders, once considered the season’s most disappointing team, had battled their way back into playoff contention and narrowly — by a single point — missed out on the post-season.
The Islanders haven’t stopped there, though. Over the summer, it has been apparent that the Islanders want to provide Tavares with reasons to stay and have searched for ways to bulk up the team’s offense. The Islanders were in the thick of the Matt Duchene trade discussions before, during and after the draft, and when that door shut, New York went out and nabbed Jordan Eberle from the Edmonton Oilers as a potential wingman for Tavares. The team has also kept much of their defense intact and, rather than lose a top forward to the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, New York worked out a trade to protect all their current pieces.
Tavares may also see a chance to win with the Islanders. New York made it to the second round of the post-season in 2015-16, and there are a number of young talents coming in who could improve the roster greatly in the next few years. Mathew Barzal, Michael Dal Colle, Ryan Pulock and Josh Ho-Sang are among those players who could have an impact as early as this coming campaign, taking an underperforming Islanders team back to the playoffs after a year watching from the sidelines.
Of course, the on-ice aspects alone might not be enough to keep Tavares in town, but the Islanders seem to be working towards solving their arena situation. The Barclays Center, where the team currently plays, has provided nothing but headaches for the team over the past few years with everything from bad ice to poor attendance plaguing the team. But the Islanders appear to be working on finding a new home, and it would seem a solution to the arena issues is only a matter of time.
As it is with any free agent, though, the more pressing issue could be the terms of the contract, and one can be almost certain the parameters of a new deal for Tavares have changed with Connor McDavid’s contract in Edmonton this summer.
McDavid signed a massive eight-year, $100-million extension with the Oilers in July, and a deal worth that much is sure to push up the price tag for all star players who are looking to ink deals in the coming years. Prior to McDavid’s deal, the framework for a Tavares deal seemed to be something long-term with a cap hit in the $10-million range, commensurate with what stars such as Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Anze Kopitar have signed over the past few seasons. But McDavid’s deal, with its $12.5-million annual average value, could mean Tavares is in line to go above $10-million per season.
Make no mistake that Tavares would, by statistical comparison, be worth the money. Over the past three seasons, Tavares has 99 goals and 222 points, totals that rank ninth and sixth, respectively, among all players. Granted, Tavares’ numbers are behind Kane’s, but they eclipse Kopitar’s by 37 goals and 30 points and the Islanders superstar has 22 more goals and 40 more points than Toews has registered over the same span. So, worth $10-million-plus? Almost certainly, if that’s the going rate for a player of his calibre.
The thing about paying Tavares that much, though, is that few teams are in a position to really fork over the kind of eight-year, $80-million-plus contract Tavares would be worth. For many teams, to do so would be to eat up roughly half their cap space next season, but the Islanders are one of the only teams that have set themselves up to pay big for Tavares’ services. New York has a projected $35.5 million in cap space next season, per CapFriendly, which is more than all but the Vancouver Canucks and Vegas Golden Knights, and you can be sure the Islanders have plotted out a future around a hefty raise for Tavares.
All of this is to say that while a big name, MVP-calibre player hitting free agency would surely make for a great story, we’ve seen in recent years loyalty from those types of players, as they’ve chosen instead to remain with an organization and build on a legacy. And while Tavares could surely create a big-money bidding war the likes of which hasn’t been seen in the cap era, from everything he has said and everything the Islanders have seemingly done, maybe we shouldn’t expect it.
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