Column: The start of NHL free agency allows John Tavares to live his childhood dream with the Toronto Maple Leafs
Soon after free-agent center John Tavares announced he had left the New York Islanders for a seven-year, $77-million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, he tweeted a photo of himself as a boy, sleeping on Maple Leaf sheets and pillows and wrapped in a blanket dotted with the iconic blue-and-white logo. “Not everyday you can live a childhood dream,” he said. Losing him without compensation was more like a nightmare for scorned Islanders fans, some of whom torched Tavares jerseys instead of Fourth of July firecrackers.
Tavares, the No. 1 draft pick in 2009 and a prolific scorer who scored 37 goals and 84 points last season, was the standout in a relatively ho-hum free-agent market that opened on Sunday. Elite players with long, pricey contracts rarely switch teams under the NHL’s hard salary cap, enhancing Tavares’ value. He spoke to officials of six teams last week at the Los Angeles offices of Creative Artists Agency, which represents him, and on Saturday he narrowed the field to the Islanders and the Maple Leafs.
The Islanders could give him an eight-year contract; the maximum for other teams was seven. The Islanders could give him promises that hockey operations director Lou Lamoriello and coach Barry Trotz — late of the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals — would reverse years of poor management. He could live in anonymity on Long Island, though he’d continue to shuttle between two arenas until the scheduled 2021 opening of the Islanders’ new arena at Belmont Park. The Maple Leafs, led by an impressive young core, were the only team that could grant his childhood wish, and he grabbed the chance to go home. The price is the intense pressure and scrutiny that comes with playing in the Center of the Hockey Universe, a new experience for the low-key Tavares.
“It was tough,” he said at a news conference in Toronto. “You’re in one place for so long. You get so embedded, your roots are so deep in there and you care so much about the people and the people that have cared about you. It really took the right opportunity and the right fit.”
Perhaps the second-best unrestricted free agent was winger James van Riemsdyk, who left Toronto for a five-year, $35-million deal with the Philadelphia Flyers. Otherwise, the biggest news came from the eight-year extensions signed by Kings defenseman Drew Doughty ($88 million), San Jose forward Logan Couture ($64 million for Doughty’s childhood friend), and Arizona defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson ($66 million), and Tampa Bay defenseman Ryan McDonagh’s seven-year extension with an annual average of $6.75 million.
Doughty grew up in London, Canada, not far from Toronto, in a bedroom filled with Kings gear. He understood the pull the Maple Leafs had for Tavares. “I had a feeling he wasn’t going to stay” with the Islanders, Doughty said. “He’s moving home, and that’s a dream of a lot of young kids that grew up in Ontario, to play for the Leafs, so he’s going to fulfill that dream.”
The Kings also announced the signing of Russian winger Ilya Kovalchuk to a three-year deal worth $6.25 million per season. Per capfriendly.com the Kings are $2.15 million below the salary cap, making them unlikely to take on other free agents. The Ducks agreed to terms with defenseman Luke Schenn for one year at $800,000, according to Elliotte Friedman of Hockey Night in Canada, but the team did not confirm it. A right-handed shooter, Schenn played for Arizona last season and played 43 games for the Kings in 2015-16. The Ducks lost winger J.T. Brown and minor-leaguer Mike Liambas to Minnesota as free agents.
Elsewhere, a few noteworthy players moved around the map. The Capitals lost fourth-line center Jay Beagle to a four-year, $12-million contract with Vancouver and the runner-up Vegas Golden Knights lost David Perron to St. Louis (four years, $16 million) but Vegas recouped nicely by signing center Paul Stastny for three years at $6.5 million per year. Defenseman Ian Cole, twice a Cup winner with Pittsburgh, signed with Colorado for three years at an average of $4.25 million, and Columbus did well to sign center Riley Nash for three years at $2.75 million per season. Former Kings defenseman Jack Johnson left Columbus for Pittsburgh for a five-year contract that averages $3.25 million, a surprisingly long deal and big payout considering his defense is suspect and he was a healthy scratch during Columbus’ first-round playoff loss to Washington.
A number of backup goalies switched cities. Among them was 2006 Conn Smythe winner Cam Ward, who left Carolina for Chicago and a chance at considerable playing time if Corey Crawford doesn’t fully recover from a suspected head injury. Former Kings and Ducks goalie Jonathan Bernier went to Detroit, and Jaroslav Halak went to Boston to replace Anton Khudobin, who departed for Dallas.
It’s business, this movement of free agents, but sometimes it allows men to live childhood dreams. Tavares can only hope his dream was worth pursuing.
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen
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