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Lou Lamoriello and John Tavares Free Agency: Lessons from Kovalchuk 2010?

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Not the first time Loophole Lou has had to deal with a star free agent and a very interested owner.

Toronto Maple Leafs v New York Islanders
Promise to surround him with good young players.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

One of the more interesting memes — I use that term pre-Internetly — to come from the shift of the Lou Lamoriello news from unconfirmed fait accompli to “sources confirm to Staple” is the unsettling assured belief that this positively influences John Tavares’ decision on whether to re-sign with the Islanders. That’s where the latest wave of speculation and musing is going in the latest (May 21) chapter of the Tavares Encyclopedia.

To reiterate in quick summary: We have no idea what exactly John Tavares is looking for, but what he’s said and looked for in the past gives us pause. Just like Garth Snow and Lamoriello himself, Tavares doesn’t say anything of newsbreaking substance, ever. Remember that we are led to believe he likes playing for general manager Garth Snow...and don’t forget coach Doug Weight, too. (Just like we are led to believe Snow and Lamoriello have a good relationship. Just like we are led to believe Tavares wants to be an Islander but also wants to win but also maybe wants to see what’s out there in free agency and...etc.)

So does Lamoriello’s presence and reported conversation with Tavares — on behalf of the Islanders, which is weird for a Maple Leafs employee, but whatever, it’s Lou, so it’s fine — nudge the Islanders captain a little closer to re-upping sooner than later? Sure, I can buy it.

Would Tavares feel better if Snow (and Weight?!) were still in the fold too? You don’t know and I don’t know, but anything is plausible given past history of these relationships, as we all wait to see whether Snow (and Weight) still has a role after all this clears.

Point being, if you believe Tavares still believes in or is loyal to Snow but would like to see other “signs” the Isles are poised to contend, you have to wonder if Lamoriello represents a strong enough such sign to get Tavares to sign before next month’s draft, rather than wait another week and get to the free agent flirtation period that he appears to have been set on reaching since last summer.

Lamoriello and Kovalchuk: Any lessons from history?

Anyway, to the point at hand: Let’s absolutely take as a given that Lamoriello brings the long-sought “credibility” to the Islanders. Whatever you think of Lamoriello in his 2018 form, there can be no denying that point. (For proof, just look at the report the NHL is fine with Lamoriello and Tavares talking, and then imagine the reaction if it were Snow or some other Isles-affiliated advisor talking, with permission I assure you, to another team’s free agent.)

Given the keys to the car but a ticking clock on renewing the lease, what does Lamoriello do to convince real, positive changes are afoot? (Keep in mind one of these things might be, or have to be, keeping Weight as coach.)

Flash back to 2010 and the Ilya Kovalchuk free agency. Yes, it’s eight years and one lockout ago {only one lockout ago? Checks record book. Yep.}, but it was still the cap era (though peak cap-dodging CBA, which became important), and it’s the closest parallel we’ve got.

To refresh your memory, the Devils acquired Kovalchuk as a free agent “rental” — a rather un-Lou risk — from the Atlanta Thrashers (those are the Winnipeg Jets today) at the trade deadline in February 2010. Kovalchuk was an unquestioned talent but had an iffy “character” reputation at the time, helping fuel much speculation that the Devils owner wanted the player more than his GM did, speculation that continued into the free agency period.

But he was instantly outstanding with the Devils. After Kovalchuk put up a point per game in 27 regular season games and then six points in five playoff games, they entered the summer free agency period without a deal in place.

Things went into mid-July without any news. Here was Lamoriello on July 6, as reported in the Star-Ledger:

At this point, the Devils are still waiting to hear Kovalchuk’s decision, which could come down to staying in New Jersey or playing in the KHL in Russia.

”Everything is status quo,” Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello said today. “There is nothing new today.”

Lamoriello did not want to comment on the state of talks with agent Jay Grossman.

Irony alert: Also in that story: Garth Snow conceding that he talked to Grossman in a “anything to improve the hockey club” way but saying nothing further.

Two weeks and a lot of silence later, the parties announced a jaw-breaking, comically cap-bending* 17-year, $102 million deal.

*The deal that was ultimately signed was soon voided by the NHL for “back-diving,” a pretty clear cap-circumventing drop in salary during likely retirement years that the NHL said was illegal then and codified as wrong in the next CBA. An arbitrator upheld the league’s decision. The sides eventually reached a less-back-divey deal.

**The Devils and Lamoriello, obviously, disagreed with the league’s conclusion, though the normally tight-lipped Lamoriello conceded he didn’t think such contracts should be allowed, before offering:

“But there is nothing we have done wrong. This is within the rules. This is the CBA. There are precedents that have been set, but I would agree that we shouldn’t have these.

”But I’m also saying that, because it’s legal and this is something ownership felt like doing for the right reasons, then it was done.”

Wait, this isn’t about the cap though — just like ::smirk:: Kovalchuk’s camp said it was never about the money. This is about how Lamoriello approaches a big signing like this. Because some of the descriptions of Kovalchuk’s decision-making process sound eerily similar to what we infer of Tavares today:

Here’s his agent, Jay Grossman, after the initial signing in July 2010:

“(Ilya) got the chance to come here (to New Jersey) and see what it was all about. He’s one that takes it all in, understands it and he was always in his mind committed to going to July 1, to see what was out there. He had a lot of compelling options. The difficulty at times was that they were so different. All of what was being presented to us was so drastically different including the proposal that we received from the KHL (Kontinental Hockey League). And in the end, I think, he wanted it all out in front of him and as he said at the press conference be able to sit down with his family and then he after having gone out and seeing what was out there he came full circle and felt this was the place for him.”

So Lamoriello has an informative experience dealing with a franchise star free agent who wanted to see all options in front of him before making a decision.

What was his winning approach?

Grossman again, as reported in the Star-Ledger/NJ.com:

Grossman credited Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello with how he handled negotiations.

“Lou is the ultimate professional,” Grossman said. “I think he pulled a few tricks out of his Providence College recruiting bag. He was amazing. He was unbelievable. He always called at the right time. He always said the right things. He was respectful of Ilya’s space. His ability to go out there and make a choice. He didn’t ever get ruffled by that. And in the end, in my view, he showed that from all the people in hockey, he showed that he had Ilya’s best interests in mind.”

So...well that’s something. Granted, these are all the words of a happy agent eight years ago after his client just signed the most insane contract in NHL history. Of course he’s going to say the GM was good and all that.

But it gives you an idea of how methodically, broadly and carefully Lamoriello will likely approach Tavares discussions, discussions that in some form have apparently already begun, discussions that have previously been unfruitful despite being the top non-arena priority of the current ownership since they first agreed to buy the franchise.

P.S. Kovalchuk is now a free agent again reportedly looking to exit the KHL and return to the NHL and the New York area. Just saying.