The waiting game continues.
John Tavares, who had up until midnight on Saturday to decide if he would re-sign with the New York Islanders or enter July 1 as one of the biggest free agents in recent memory, was still undecided about his future as the clock crept towards the 11th hour and our press deadline had passed.
Give him credit: He’s weighing all his options. That includes a possible return home to Toronto for the Mississauga, Ont., native. The only question is if Tavares hits the open market, whether the Maple Leafs would be in the driver’s seat to sign him.
But before we get any further — before we start debating if Tavares should be named captain or who might be his linemates or which direction on Bay St., the parade will travel — we should probably take a minute and ask the all-important question:
Would this even be the right move?
The answer is as complicated as the reported one-plus-eight-year contract that the Leafs are believed to have offered Tavares when they privately met with him earlier this week in Los Angeles.
Nothing is official yet. But at this point, with Tavares choosing to hit the open market rather than re-sign with the New York Islanders, it would be shocking if he didn’t pick Toronto over the San Jose Sharks, Tampa Bay Lightning or any of the other teams that met with him privately in California last week.
Then again, I’m still in shock that the Leafs are even this close to the finish line two years after Steven Stamkos got cold feet and re-signed with the Lightning a few days before becoming a free agent.
Getting Tavares would be an even bigger deal.
It’s significantly bigger than Toronto getting a past-his-prime Eric Lindros in 2005 or a 37-year-old Patrick Marleau last summer. The closest comparable might be when the Leafs almost traded for Wayne Gretzky in 1996. Of course, that was a Gretzky who would play just three more years in the league.
Based on how the deal gets structured, the Leafs could have Tavares for nine long years. And because he’s only 27, half of those could still be his best years.
In fact, some spent Saturday debating whether signing Tavares would be a bigger deal than if the Toronto Raptors managed to land LeBron James in free agency. Most sports fans laughed at the comparison. But I’d argue that if signing Tavares results in a Stanley Cup, then there’s no debate.
And that’s why this is so complicated. It’s predicated on winning a championship for this Cup-starved city. And with William Nylander needing an extension this summer and the entry-level contracts of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner expiring next year, it has to happen sooner rather than later.
In other words, there’s plenty of risk involved. You might have to part with one of the kids. You might have to triple-shift Morgan Rielly on defence.
For a team that has exercised patience and stayed the course ever since Brendan Shanahan took over as president, it’s the first time the Leafs are going all-in. It’s Kyle Dubas’ first move — and first gamble — as general manager. And, if he’s not careful, it could be his first mistake.
On one hand, you can see why the Leafs would want Tavares. He’s a top-line centre who finished 16th in scoring last season — he was eighth among centres — with 37 goals and 84 points. On the other, you can see why this might be the wrong move at the wrong time.
The Leafs are deep at centre, but you can never have enough depth down the middle. We saw that last year with Washington, which had Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and Lars Eller stationed at centre, as well as with Pittsburgh in 2016 and 2017, which had a one-two punch of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
With Tavares, Matthews and Nazem Kadri (who is the same age as Tavares), a trio that combined for 103 goals last season, the Leafs would have arguably the best 1-2-3 centre combo in the league.
That’s hard to pass up, even though Tavares puts a team that has slowly and steadily built through the draft into financial hell for the next decade. It’s not quite Edmonton signing Milan Lucic, but the implications could be similar in that Toronto has fewer dollars to spread around where it needs it the most.
Maybe, like Pittsburgh or Washington, having a player of Tavares’ calibre will offset any defensive weakness. But let’s keep things in perspective.
Tavares is not the LeBron of the NHL. He’s never won a scoring title or been a finalist for league MVP. He’s made it to the second round of the playoffs just once in his nine years. Three years ago, he finished second in the Art Ross Trophy race with 86 points, but has been in the top 15 only one other time.
When it comes to offence, he is not as dynamic as Connor McDavid or Crosby. He’s not as complete a centre as Patrice Bergeron or Anze Kopitar. If he’s better than Matthews, he won’t be for long.
Which means that when it comes time for Matthews to re-sign an extension, you can bet he and his new agent — he switched representatives in June — will be looking for similar money and term to what Tavares signed for. Ditto for Marner, who led the Leafs in scoring this season and was their best player in the post-season.
It’s a gamble. And it’s not just Tavares rolling the dice.