The decision is in: John Tavares has chosen the Toronto Maple Leafs, with the deal to be announced shortly, MLHS has learned.

Not bad for the first player acquisition of the Kyle Dubas era.

The quote that immediately comes to mind is Mike Babcock calling his shot after joining the organization back in May 2015: “Once we make it safe, they’re coming home… Mark my words.”

Babcock: “My point is this – if we create an environment – not if – when we create an environment that allows these players to be safe, it’s going to be way better. How many people from Ontario play in the NHL? Once we make it safe, they’re coming home.”

You really think people will want to play in Toronto?

Babcock: “You got it. They don’t right now. It’s really hard. Mark my words: They’ll be coming.”

Needless to say, the gravity of this signing is immense to the point where it’s going to take a few days or weeks for Leafs Nation and the hockey world at large to fully digest its impact. The Leafs have added a top ten – arguably top five – player at the center position in the prime of his career, for nothing other than cash and cap space, so that the franchise can chase Stanley Cups for the next 5-10 seasons.

And he’s not even going to be the best forward or centerman on the team over that time frame.

Centermen like John Tavares are not supposed to make it to unrestricted free agency in the modern era. Tavares, a former first overall pick in 2008, is a .93 point-per-game player over the course of his career, which is 11th in the NHL among players with 250 or more games played over that span (achieved with an often less-than-ideal supporting cast). He is a four-time 30+ goal scorer who has broken the 80-point mark three times. He’s been a point-per-game player — or a single point shy of it — five times in his last seven seasons. The 27-year-old is a back-to-back World Junior gold medalist and an Olympic and World Cup champion for Team Canada.

The list of less-than-elite linemates Tavares has made significantly better during his time on Long Island — and helped secure long-term, lucrative contracts for — is a long one: Matt Moulson, a multiple 30+ goal scorer on the Island. Kyle Okposo. Josh Bailey and Anders Lee. PA Parenteau. Now we’ll find out what he can do with elite skill on his wing, be it Mitch Marner or William Nylander, or some shifts up on Auston Matthews’ wing (or vice versa).

Mike Babcock has used Tavares on the wing next to Sidney Crosby or Ryan Getzlaf for Team Canada in the past, and he also would split up or unite Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk as he saw fit in Detroit. In general, it’s not uncommon with great center-center hockey duos, past and present, to have one ride shotgun with the other. What a Tavares-Matthews-Nylander/Marner shift would look like as far as the puck control sequences in the offensive zone boggles the mind, not to mention a potential Tavares-Matthews-Marner / Rielly-Nylander top power play unit.

Tavares’ skill set is all-world in almost every category, with his foot speed the only area that grades a touch below elite. It was always the question mark on Tavares going back to when he joined the Oshawa Generals at age 15 as an exceptional player – he’s not a natural glider out there — but a workhorse on the level of a Sidney Crosby, he has put in an insane amount of work on his skating stride. The elite speed at which Tavares processes the game, his strength on the puck, his elite hands, and his ability to incorporate changes of pace and bursts of speed enable him to cross up defenders, take them wide, and make them look silly one-on-one. He’s as lethal as anyone in the league in tight down low around the goal line – an equally gifted finisher and playmaker. The small area games Matthews and Tavares or Tavares and Marner will play together in the offensive zone is going to pack highlight reels.

With Tavares added, the Leafs will now have three centermen who scored more than 30 goals last season lined up down the middle in Matthews – Tavares – Kadri, making matching up with them an impossible prospect.

They’ve got as many as four players who will consistently threaten to break 80 points throughout their primes (unheard of in the modern era) in Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander. Babcock has talked a lot over the years about wanting to get the team’s depth to the point where he can roll his lines over the door in a series of “can’t miss” matchups, and he’s now got a forward group that is the envy of the league in that respect. Its depth and star power evokes memories of the pre-Cap Red Wings teams Brendan Shanahan was a part of.

Speaking of, it will be fascinating to hear how the pitch went over and the story behind the groundwork laid to convince Tavares to come home. President Shanahan’s track record is fast becoming the stuff of legend – hiring Kyle Dubas out of the Soo, landing Mike Babcock, hiring Lou Lamoriello out of nowhere, later helping convince Patrick Marleau to leave San Jose, and let’s not forget mending the long-fractured relationship with club legend Dave Keon.

It will be less fun to grapple with the inevitable “but what about” narratives that will emerge before Tavares has even held his #91 Leafs jersey up at the press conference: The captaincy question, and whether Auston Matthews and Tavares can co-exist and share the spotlight – ignoring that good players want to play with good players, how much bigger and brighter of a spotlight there is to share when a team is winning in a market like Toronto, or the Crosby-Malkin and Backstrom-Kuznetsov duos that won the last three Stanley Cups.

Of course, there will also be questions about how soon they’re going to have to move out a young star like William Nylander to accommodate Tavares’ money, but there is no rush on a decision any time soon with the Leafs’ current cap situation, and the franchise is in the excellent position of having their young core under RFA control for many years to come.

The arrival of Tavares — who left money on the table by taking $11 million per season — also makes the case of selling the championship vision in Toronto, and getting the type of buy-in that could shave dollars and/or term off of future contracts, much more credible. “Come to Toronto (or stay in Toronto) and win a Cup,” is no longer a pipe dream conjured up by only the team’s most fanciful supporters.

While there definitely will be challenges and tough decisions to be made going forward when it comes to managing the cap in order to keep the band together while also improving the defense core, when a prime-years franchise center is sitting there for nothing but cash and cap space, you sign him immediately and figure out the rest later. A 1-2 center punch of the quality of a Matthews-Tavares duo forms the backbone of a team that can contend year in and year out for many seasons to come, and the Leafs would’ve been nuts to pass up the opportunity.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are a destination again, and for the first time in far too long, legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.

The Contract

The biggest player contract in Leafs history is worth $77 million over the maximum seven years. That makes Tavares the second highest paid player in the NHL, $1.5 million behind Connor McDavid.

SEASONCAP HITAAVS. BONUSESBASE SALARYTOTAL SALARYMINORS SALARY
2018-1911,000,00011,000,00015,250,000650,00015,900,00015,900,000
2019-2011,000,00011,000,00014,990,000910,00015,900,00015,900,000
2020-2111,000,00011,000,00011,090,000910,00012,000,00012,000,000
2021-2211,000,00011,000,0008,440,000910,0009,350,0009,350,000
2022-2311,000,00011,000,0007,040,000910,0007,950,0007,950,000
2023-2411,000,00011,000,0007,040,000910,0007,950,0007,950,000
2024-2511,000,00011,000,0007,040,000910,0007,950,0007,950,000

Unsurprisingly, the contract is front-loaded and heavily signing-bonus laden — that gives Tavares nearly a full annual salary payout up front each year, enabling his money managers to maximize its value and also lockout-proofing the contract — with a full NMC and NTC.

With Tavares in at $11 million and William Nylander in need of a new contract before the beginning of the season (let’s assume that comes in around $6.5 million, just as a ballpark), that still leaves the Leafs with around $8 million left to spend — plus LTIR flexibility — this summer. On the priority list is potentially adding some depth for the left wing (with JVR signing in Philadelphia), the fourth-line center role (Par Lindholm has been added, but Tyler Bozak, Miro Aaltonen and Tomas Plekanec are gone), and/or for the right side of the defense (Justin Holl is in the mix here and Connor Carrick has been re-signed, while Roman Polak has signed in Dallas).

The real questions start in 2019-20, when Matthews and Marner will be starting their second deals. But it’s silly to suggest those navigable obstacles were reason enough to forgo interest in Tavares this summer. The cap situation in 2019-20 and beyond presents its challenges, but they’re challenges any team in the league would sign up for.


John Tavares Scouting Report

via McKeen’s Hockey

A pure determined scorer .. gifted hands power exemplary puckhandling and shooting arsenal .. stickhandles with lightning quickness while maintaining complete control – cool and calculating in scoring areas .. mesmerizes with clever 1-on-1 moves and finishes with a potent wristshot .. seems to want the puck at key times .. makes plays by leveraging off his size and bounces off players at times, and while not as engaging, will get physically involved .. much improved skating propelled by a sturdy, rigid stride – average footspeed .. can summon surprising bursts of speed .. defensive involvement also increased – keeps his feet active in backside pressure and takes defensive postures to the crease front .. evolving as a playmaker as well .. lethal operating below the goal line.


John Tavares Video

John Tavares Statistics

SeasonTeamLeagueGPGATPPIMPlayoffsGPGATPPIM
2003-2004Toronto Marlboros Bantam AAAGTBHL90959218776|
Toronto Marlboros Bantam AAABig Nickel Bantam7813212|
2004-2005Toronto Marlboros Mn Mdgt AAAOHL Cup56280|
Toronto Marlboros Mn Mdgt AAAGTMMHL72916715862|
Brantford 99'ersOPJHL2013152810|
2005-2006Oshawa GeneralsOHL6545327772|
Canada Ontario U17WHC-17568138|
Canada U18WJC-1872354|
2006-2007Oshawa GeneralsOHL67726213460|9712196
2007-2008Oshawa GeneralsOHL59407811869|153131620
Canada U20WJC-2074152|
Canada U20Super Series818926|
2008-2009Oshawa GeneralsOHL3226285432|
London KnightsOHL2432185022|141011218
Canada U20WJC-20687150|
2009-2010New York IslandersNHL8224305422|
CanadaWC77076|
2010-2011New York IslandersNHL7929386753|
CanadaWC754912|
2011-2012New York IslandersNHL8231508126|
CanadaWC845912|
2012-2013BernNLA2817254228|
BernET11230|
New York IslandersNHL4828194718|63254
Team CanadaSpengler Cup43140|
2013-2014New York IslandersNHL5924426640|
CanadaOG40000|
2014-2015New York IslandersNHL8238488646|72462
2015-2016New York IslandersNHL7833377038|1165116
2016-2017New York IslandersNHL7728386638|
CanadaWCup61340|
2017-2018New York IslandersNHL8237478426|