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John Tavares goes home to Toronto as NHL begins free-agency period

Premier center John Tavares, the biggest name in a weak NHL free-agent field, left the New York Islanders to sign a seven-year contract worth an annual average of $11 million with the Toronto Maple Leafs, saying in his Twitter feed on Sunday that he made the decision “to live my childhood dream here in Toronto.”

Tavares, 27, had been pursued by many teams but last week narrowed the field to Toronto, the San Jose Sharks, Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars, in addition to listening to a pitch from the Islanders last week at the Los Angeles offices of Creative Artists Agency, which represents him.

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NHL free agency officially began on Sunday at 9 a.m. PDT but prospective free agents had a brief period in which they could talk to other teams and agree to new contracts before the signing period began on Sunday.

Until late Saturday the Islanders had the advantage of being able to offer Tavares an eight-year contract while other teams could offer only seven. However, the idea of returning to the area where he grew up proved a bigger lure for Tavares than the extra year. He also tweeted a photo of himself as a child, wrapped up in a blanket decorated with Maple Leafs logos and sleeping on pillows and sheets that also had the distinctive blue-and-white leaf. He joins a team that has a promising group of forwards that includes Auston Matthews, Nazem Kadri, and Mitch Marner.

In other noteworthy moves, center Paul Stastny left Winnipeg for a reported three-year, $19.5-million contract with the Stanley Cup runner-up Vegas Golden Knights, the Colorado Avalanche signed defenseman Ian Cole for three years and $12.75 million, former Kings and Ducks goaltender Jonathan Bernier signed with Detroit, winger David Perron left the Golden Knights to return to St. Louis, former Kings defenseman Jack Johnson signed a five-year deal with Pittsburgh, goaltender Cam Ward — a 2006 Conn Smythe winner in Carolina’s Stanley Cup championship — left the Hurricanes to become Corey Crawford’s backup in Chicago, and fourth-line center Jay Beagle left the champion Washington Capitals for a reported four-year, $12-million contract with Vancouver.

The Kings announced the three-year contract they agreed to last week with prolific winger Ilya Kovalchuk is worth $18.75 million. The team also said the signing of defenseman Drew Doughty is for eight years and $88 million. Defenseman Kevin Gravel left the organization to sign a one-year deal with Edmonton.

The Ducks are not expected to sign an impact player. They lost forward J.T. Brown, a Minnesota native who signed a two-year deal with the Wild.

The Tavares news was the talk of the league. The Islanders, who missed the playoffs the past two seasons, had recently revamped their front office by hiring Lou Lamoriello to oversee hockey operations and firing general manager Garth Snow and coach Doug Weight, necessary changes that also were efforts to show Tavares they would soon be on a more successful track. They will split this season between hockey-unfriendly Barclays Center in Brooklyn and their old home, now known as NYCB Live, until their prospective new arena near Belmont race track is built. Losing Tavares, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2009, will be a setback but Lamoriello is known for his shrewd judgment and with a new arena expected to open 2021 the Islanders have incentive to build a strong team in their new home.

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