Handicapping the John Tavares Derby
The center of the hockey universe this week is in Los Angeles. It’s an office complex of steel and glass, with a concrete wall that reads CAA on it.
It’s in this building that John Tavares, the coveted unrestricted free agent from the New York Islanders, will hold court with his agent, Pat Brisson, this week before free agency, when teams can pitch to soon-to-be free agents. Tavares and Brisson will welcome delegations from NHL teams, who will make presentations in an effort to persuade one of the top players in the league to sign up with their franchises.
It’s a lot like “The Bachelor,” except that when Tavares gives the final rose, his chosen partner will likely give him close to $80 million over the next seven years.
Tavares is scheduled to visit with six teams this week in L.A.: the Bruins, Islanders, Lightning, Maple Leafs, Sharks and Stars. He is set to talk to a few more via phone.
Here’s a look at the field and which teams have the best odds of acquiring Tavares:
New York Islanders
The pitch: It’s where all his stuff is! It’s the franchise to which he has always wanted to bring a Stanley Cup! He bleeds orange and blue (the Islanders kind, not the Knicks or Mets kind)!
The Islanders have the inside track on Tavares as the only team that can offer him an eight-year term on a single contract, as opposed to seven. The question is whether they’ve done enough to persuade him to commit to a franchise that has, thus far, provided him with the opportunity to play in just 24 playoff games since 2009. For comparison’s sake, Washington Capitals rookie center Chandler Stephenson played that many this postseason.
Do the arrivals of Lou Lamoriello as GM and Barry Trotz as head coach, replacing Garth Snow and Doug Weight, respectively, stabilize the organization and increase the chances of success? Do the plans for the new arena at Belmont Park, as well as the home-game split between Barclays and Nassau until that move, entice him? Can he possibly turn down free bagels every morning for life, which is an actual thing being offered by Long Island’s Bagel Boss? (not sure about the salary-cap circumvention implications there)
Or does he need a change?
Does the money work? Totally. The Islanders have been anticipating an eight-figure cap number for their captain for years. They have only 13 players under contract for next season, with more than $32 million in space. They’ll gladly fill in the blanks around Tavares if he returns. The contract on the table for Tavares is a reported eight years and $88 million, giving him the league’s second-highest annual cap hit behind Connor McDavid‘s $12.5 million.
The pitch: The Islanders have made the playoffs three times in the nine years Tavares has spent in the NHL. The Sharks have made the playoffs eight times in that span, including three conference finals and the Stanley Cup Final, and are poised to continue contending. They have Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic signed through 2025, with extensions for Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski in the works. They have top-six options on the wing such as Evander Kane and Tomas Hertl. They have an actual NHL starting goaltender under contract in Martin Jones, who is signed through 2024.
They have strong management, solid ownership and great facilities. Evgeni Nabokov, a friend of Tavares’, is in the organization as a goaltending coach. Oh, and did we mention the whole “living in Silicon Valley” bit?
Does the money work? The Sharks have more than $18 million in cap space after trading forward Mikkel Boedker to Ottawa and buying out defenseman Paul Martin. They have 19 players under contract, with new contracts for Hertl and (hopefully) Joe Thornton in the offering. Signing Tavares would mean the Sharks could be close to $50 million dedicated to four forwards and two defensemen by 2019-20, if Pavelski and Couture both sign for around $8.25 million against the cap. That would leave just 35 percent of their available cap space for the rest of the roster, which sounds a little fishy for the Sharks.
The pitch: For about a year, there has been speculation that Tavares wants to find a way to play with his close friend Steven Stamkos. The fact that the Lightning have been invited to the pitch meeting despite their cap situation (more on that in a moment) would indicate that Tavares is willing to explore it.
Obviously, the Lightning have an outstanding assemblage of talent, having made the Eastern Conference finals in two of the past three years. They have stars in Stamkos, winger Nikita Kucherov and defenseman Victor Hedman. They have a Vezina Trophy finalist in Andrei Vasilevskiy. In Jon Cooper and Steve Yzerman, they have one of the most respected coach/GM combos in the NHL, as well as one of its finest owners in Jeff Vinik. This is a tremendous organization that would give Tavares a shot at the Cup, in a market that would seem to fit his needs as far as a lack of media intensity and climate (and, like three of his other suitors, no state income tax). But the No. 91 is, uh, taken.
Does the money work? Therein lies the rub. “We would have to make room. We would have to make room if we brought in a significant salary,” Yzerman said at the NHL draft.
That’s because the Lightning have just over $10 million in cap space. To find the necessary breathing room, that could mean a trade of center Tyler Johnson ($5 million against the cap) before his no-trade clause kicks in on July 1. But that would be just the start of the cap moves for Yzerman, who is looking at new contracts for several key players, including Kucherov, in summer 2019. It’s hard to imagine how the Lightning would make this work, but there are few general managers we’d trust more than Yzerman — and assistant GM Julien BriseBois — to figure it out.
The pitch: The same pitch they’ve made to every Ontario native who has gone on to NHL stardom: Think back to being that little boy in the blue pajamas rooting for Dougie and Wendel, come home, and fulfill your childhood destiny of bringing the Stanley Cup to Toronto. The problem is that this pitch has worked on only one person in his prime: Mike Babcock. (Coincidentally, he is arguably the most repellant part of this pitch for Tavares: a coach who couldn’t attract free agents to Detroit, embittered his veterans on the Red Wings and is currently trying to mend fences with the team’s 20-year-old superstar, Auston Matthews.)
But this time, the Leafs have something slightly more enticing to offer: a triumvirate of young stars in Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander and a sense that Tavares would be joining a team that’s building toward a championship rather than throwing money at a problem. The Leafs have a bright general manager in Kyle Dubas and the steady hand of Brendan Shanahan at the wheel of the organization.
And, again: Tavares would get to wear a similar jersey to the one he wore to Maple Leaf Gardens as a kid.
Does the money work? The single most tantalizing question haunting the Tavares Derby? Whether he would consider taking a one-year max contract of $15.9 million with the Leafs and then re-upping with them on an eight-year term with a slightly below market value cap hit next summer. It’s a one-year contract the Leafs are uniquely positioned to offer, with Matthews and Marner still on their rookie deals for another season, and it’s an eight-year contract that would give the Leafs a little breathing room under the cap to sign their young stars and, say, add an elite defenseman.
That plan would require a leap of faith — and a boatload of insurance premiums — from Tavares and Brisson, who might stand to make more in total on a contract elsewhere. And, again, it would mean a Good Ontario Boy returning home to play for the Leafs, which is a level of pressure and expectation we wouldn’t wish on anyone, let alone a guy making eight figures.
The pitch: Well, this was a surprise. No Montreal. No St. Louis. But here are the Dallas Stars, a franchise that has made the playoffs one fewer time than Tavares has in his NHL career, in the room to pitch him. They’ve got some significant pieces in Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov, John Klingberg and Ben Bishop. Owner Tom Gaglardi is well-liked by the team and has shown a boldness in his spending.
Dallas also would seem to be the kind of low-pressure media market Tavares might prefer. And obviously, the no-income-tax cost of living in the Lone Star State is a draw. Why do you think Jaromir Jagr signed there?
Does the money work? Sure, if the Stars can make Jason Spezza‘s $7.5 million cap hit through this season and/or Martin Hanzal‘s $4.75 million hit through 2020 disappear for this season. Then Seguin needs a new contract next summer, which means the Stars could have upward of $30 million tied up in three forwards. But yes, the Stars can make the money work.
The pitch: David Poile, apparently. Arthur Staple of The Athletic reported, “a phone chat with GM David Poile apparently intrigued Tavares quite a bit. Poile is one of the most respected execs in the league, and Tavares may want to give the Preds a longer look as this week unfolds.”
Obviously, the Predators have all the pieces to be Stanley Cup champions. Adding Tavares at center, with Ryan Johansen anchoring another line, would greatly increase the chances that they hoist that Cup. Like some other states on this list, Tennessee has no state income tax. Unlike others on this list, the Predators weren’t among the first group of teams to chat with Tavares in person.
Does the money work? Yes, thanks to Poile. The Predators have big-ticket contracts for P.K. Subban ($9 million in average annual value through 2022) and Johansen ($8 million in AAV through 2025) and will need another one for Roman Josi in 2020. But Filip Forsberg, Kyle Turris, Viktor Arvidsson and Mattias Ekholm are all locked in for $6 million or less, and the Preds have three years of Eeli Tolvanen‘s entry-level deal remaining.
The pitch: Few teams can boast the balance of players in their prime and young standouts that the Bruins can. Tavares and Patrice Bergeron reportedly have a mutual admiration from their time on Team Canada. The idea of Bergeron/Brad Marchand and Tavares/David Pastrnak lines anchoring this team for the next several years is beyond enticing. The Bruins would keep Tavares in the Eastern Conference, but if he’s looking for a low-key media market, Boston isn’t exactly it.
Does the money work? Not without a significant chunk of change leaving the Bruins’ roster. That means pairing David Backes with a prospect to shed his $6 million AAV deal (through 2021) or trading away David Krejci and his $7.2 million cap hit (through 2021). But having Bergeron, Pastrnak and Marchand locked in for long-term, reasonable deals helps.
The pitch: The Knights might have better odds if they were one of the teams Tavares was holding court with in person this week, but they reportedly still have a shot. The expansion darlings played for the Stanley Cup in their first season and have a huge chunk of cap space to attempt to do it again.
Why choose Vegas?
“Why wouldn’t you want to play there? It’s a good team, good ownership, fantastic fans, sold out, beautiful facilities … game rink, practice rink. It’s an easy way to live. It’s easy to get around. The weather’s great. There’s no state tax,” GM George McPhee said. “If we do our job in management, then we can win here because we got everything we need and we can win. First year was a good start, and we’ll see what develops now.”
Does the money work? More than it does anywhere else. The Golden Knights have nearly $31 million in cap space this summer, with 17 players under contract. They have eight players under contract for 2019-20, so this is a very flexible roster that can fit any manner and sort of Tavares deal, should he decide to take his talents to Sin City.