What are the odds? Looking at Tavares' suitors
John Tavares has just about wrapped up all the meetings and information sessions with each of the six teams he might be interested in signing with, so now it becomes a waiting game as the 27-year-old superstar center makes his decision. Certainly, Tavares could simply decide to return to the New York Islanders team where he’s spent first nine seasons of his NHL career, and that would probably end up being the easiest choice for him. But every team clearly has a shot after getting the invite to meet out in Los Angeles over the last few days, so here’s a handicapping of the odds for each of those six suitors to wind up with Tavares on their roster once the dust settles on the July 1 opening of free agency.
New York Islanders
The Islanders have completely made over their organization by bringing in Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz at the top of the organization, and they have the ability to offer the most money in a package to Tavares by virtue of the eighth year they can to as a team trying to retain their own player. Most people think this is going to wind up much the same as Steve Stamkos a couple of years ago where he’s going to dip his toes in, see how the other half lives and then ultimately return back to the familiarity of his team. That being said, the Islanders home rink situation is in flux and Tavares has probably felt like he was playing for one of the NHL’s punch line teams through his entire career at decrepit Nassau Coliseum and then at a lousy NHL arena in Brooklyn that was built for basketball. So it’s a lot different than Stamkos going back to a great situation in Tampa. It feels like the Islanders are doing everything they can to ensure that Tavares comes back, and because of that, and their inherent advantages, they should be the leader in the clubhouse at this point. Lamoriello seems determined to hang onto his player, and when Lou wants something he usually tends to find a way to get it done. It would really be a shame for the Isles if they lose their franchise player just when it seems like they are getting their stuff together. Odds: 2-to-1.
San Jose Sharks
The Sharks have dumped salaried players (the whole set of Mike Hoffman deals), bought out contracts (Paul Martin) and done whatever they could to clear space for a big move this offseason, and that’s left them with $18 plus million in cap space this summer. They’re doing that for a reason and that reason is John Tavares. The Sharks clearly have a competitive, playoff-worthy team already, and acquiring an in-his-prime talent like Tavares would vault them into one of the favorites in the Western Conference. As it is, the Sharks have made the playoffs in 13 of the last 14 seasons and would provide Tavares with the consistently competitive environment it seems he’s looking for. San Jose is also the kind of quiet, relaxed NHL atmosphere where the fan support is strong, but players can generally stay off the radar and out of the spotlight with the Giants, Warriors and 49ers grabbing a lot of the attention. For a quiet, no-frills player like Tavares, a locale like San Jose could be extremely attractive with a competitive team and an established group where he doesn’t have to be the face of the franchise anymore. Other than the Islanders, it would seem that the Sharks are the team most desperate to get Tavares during this free agency period. So they might just be the favorites if Tavares decides to go anywhere else aside from opting for a return to the Islanders. Odds: 4-to-1.
Why wouldn’t it be the Bruins? They have the cap space, they certainly have a plan in place if he does come to Boston and once again he’d be on a team that would immediately become a Stanley Cup favorite if he entered the mix. Tavares has a relationship with Patrice Bergeron after the two of them played together, and played on the same line, on Team Canada in the Winter Olympics. They have an established core group that’s won Stanley Cups and they have a couple of waves of young talent that again have them on the upswing, and an addition of Tavares would make them a playoff team for the foreseeable future. Perhaps one of the underrated strengths of the Bruins sales pitch would be the system employed by Bruce Cassidy, who puts players in positions to generate offense and put up big numbers as attested by Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak all posting 30 goal seasons this year. Tavares would probably have the best statistical seasons of his career in the middle of Boston’s lineup and on their power play, and that would be good for both the individual player and for the team. If Tavares wants to go to the situation best poised for long-term success for both him and for the team, it would be Boston. Clearly, it would be a bit of a different-looking roster as they’d have to jettison either David Backes or David Krejci, or both, if they signed Tavares to a mega-dollars deal, but it would certainly be a change for the better. Odds: 5-to-1.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Certainly, the Leafs will be the sentimental choice for Tavares, who grew up a Leafs fan in Ontario and has undoubtedly dreamed of donning that sweater for most of his hockey-loving life. The Leafs have seemingly unlimited money to pay out to players, they’re a young team very much on the upswing and Tavares could play the mentor, veteran leader role for young guys like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. Still, Toronto would be a pretty intense market for a player like Tavares that seems to prefer to fly under-the-radar and away from the hype and the noise. If he chooses Toronto then he’s going to be right in the middle of the maelstrom and he’ll be looked at as the savior that’s finally going to bring the Cup back to Toronto. It would be the pinnacle for Tavares if he did end up taking them to the promised land, but it’s also been instructive to watch players like Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel crumble under that kind of pressure in recent years. The Leafs have $24 plus million in cap space, so offering top dollar isn’t going to be a problem for them. One thing to think about: Could Mike Babcock actually be an impediment for Tavares going to Toronto? Certainly, there’s past experience there with Team Canada, but these days Babcock seems to be running into problems with his top players (Matthews) while in Toronto. Could that be a warning sign for Tavares? Odds: 10-to-1.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The Tampa Bay Lightning have roughly $5 million in salary cap space. My question is this: How in the hell is Steve Yzerman going to make that work knowing he’s going to have to pay Tavares in the $11-12 million per season range on a long-term deal? Clearly, the Lightning would be the best team if Tavares joined up with them, but it would also in some ways tear that team apart given the kind of salary cap issues they’d run into as soon as the contract was done. If any team sells Tavares on signing a one-year deal to take a run at the Cup, and then go back to the free agent well for the big money next season, then the Lightning would probably be that creative team looking for their Cup. The idea of Stamkos, Kucherov, Hedman, Vasilevskiy, Point, Callahan, McDonagh and so much more is pretty damn breathtaking. But let’s be honest here. There would be something almost Kevin Durant-esque if a player like Tavares opts to join up for a super team in Tampa Bay, so let’s hope this one doesn’t happen. Because if it does then it’s really bad news for the Atlantic Division, and then bad news for the rest of the Eastern Conference as well. So let’s leave the Lightning out of it, shall we? Odds: 20-to-1.
Clearly, the Stars are an option for Tavares if he really wants to go someplace that’s quiet, competitive and will allow Tavares to completely operate under the radar in a non-hockey market. One wonders what would happen to Tyler Seguin if Tavares was brought in to Dallas, as Seguin’s days would probably be numbered if they dropped a wheelbarrow of cash right into the 27-year-old free agent’s lap. Once again Tavares wouldn’t have to be the face of the franchise as Jamie Benn fills that role nicely, and he’d be in a situation where the offense would be flowing freely with so much point-producing talent among their ranks. My own sense is that the Stars are the biggest long shot on this list, and really the team that kind of doesn’t belong with the rest of them when they’re all put together. They have almost $20 million in cap space, though. Maybe they could massively overpay Tavares in order to convince him to go to Dallas, or maybe he’s just a giant Dallas Cowboys fan as so many people north of the border are after growing up with the Cowboys as North America’s Team. Whatever the case, the Stars don’t feel like the choice unless there’s some crazy unknown reason that nobody knows about why Tavares would prefer them. Odds: 100-to-1.