July 1st was a bad day.
I don’t think that needs to be rehashed in detail. For Islanders fans my age, who were too young to remember Ziggy Palffy, let alone Pierre Turgeon, Pat Lafontaine, or the dynasty Islanders, Tavares was the New York Islanders. He was hardworking and humble, kind and gracious, and never went out of his way to grab the spotlight. He had faults in his game, but he was the face of the franchise, and scored two decisive goals to clinch the team’s first playoff victory since 1993.
That’s what makes his decision to leave so shocking. This isn’t the same as losing Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen in the same off-season, at least not from a morale standpoint. While those guys had been part of the team for longer than Tavares, they were never at the level Tavares was at as far as fan association. The fact that Tavares was the face of the franchise is what makes it harder to stomach, especially the way he left.
We’ll never get the full story, but from my perspective, it seems like Tavares’ own personal feelings vs. what his agent may have done to give him better leverage was probably what led to the “we won’t trade Tavares” mandate.
I really do believe it was a tough decision for him. I think he made it far tougher on the teammates he left behind by doing it the way he did. He doesn’t owe Lou Lamoriello anything, frankly, but he does owe the team he left behind the decency to not basically be treated like a bunch of losers. Stringing the team along, regardless of the reason, hurts the Islanders’ chances to compete next season. This is a fact. Maybe they’ll respond the same way Vegas did at being viewed as losers. Maybe not.
But when people asked, incredulously, why John Tavares would ever want to stay with the Islanders, I think it shows what professional sports in general are starting to lose.
If Tavares signed an eight-year contract with the Islanders, he would have likely secured his number in the rafters, become synonymous with the Islanders for an entire generation of fans, and would have been able to work with a Hall of Fame general manager and a Stanley Cup winning coach as he and Mathew Barzal became one of the best one-two punches in the NHL.
Maybe he would have won a Stanley Cup with the new core of players and been the experienced captain who led them there. We’ll never know now.
People don’t remember it because of who Steve Yzerman is now, but it took him 14 seasons with the Red Wings before he won the Stanley Cup, and his leadership was called into question multiple times along the way. Yzerman joined the Red Wings in 1983 after being picked 4th overall, and they didn’t add Sergei Fedorov until 1990, Chris Osgood until 1993, Nicklas Lidstrom until 1994, Igor Larionov until 1995, and Brendan Shanahan until 1996, in the season the Red Wings ended a 42-year cup drought.
If Yzerman had left the Red Wings to win elsewhere, he likely isn’t viewed as the ultimate captain and idol of so many players. Henrik and Daniel Sedin came the closest in 2011 when they lost in game 7 against the Boston Bruins. The Vancouver Canucks never got that close again, and have been on the decline for years, but the twins retired with Vancouver and without Stanley Cups.
Shane Doan wasn’t anywhere near the player Tavares is, but despite the Arizona Coyotes going nowhere for basically their entire existence bar a surprise run to the Conference Finals in 2012, he stayed with that team for his entire career. Doan’s loyalty influenced Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s decision to sign an 8-year extension with the Coyotes for below market value.
Tavares could have set that culture with the Islanders, too, leading the way for younger players on the team.
If you win as a one-club man, you become a legend. Even if you never win anything as a one-club man, you’re generally still loved for your contributions to a team and community you’ve become part of and grown up in. Canucks fans will always love the Sedins. Coyotes fans will always love Shane Doan. Tavares could have even been like Mike Modano, playing a season with a top team to try and win one last Stanley Cup, or like his now-teammate Patrick Marleau, who joined the Maple Leafs at the tail end of his career to try and win the Cup. Stars fans love Modano. Sharks fans love Marleau. Will Islanders fans always look back fondly on Tavares’ time on Long Island?
When you leave without a proper goodbye, with a former teammate saying he doesn’t blame fans for burning your jersey, when you’ve been saying you’re committed to a team while announcing that your childhood dream was to play for the Leafs (but only once they got good!) you aren’t going to receive a lot of well-wishes. That’s not the guy that fans thought was their captain since 2013.
His uncle, also named John Tavares, was a one-club man for lacrosse’s Buffalo Bandits. It seemed like our JT91 was going to follow in those footsteps and be the face and leader of the franchise. Instead, he waited for the timing to work out with Toronto.
New York Islanders fans thought they had a one-club man, hopefully one like Tavares’ idol Yzerman. Despite growing up as a Leafs fan, Tavares always seemed committed to the Islanders and committed to winning that fifth Stanley Cup for the franchise. Instead, he left without much warning.
It feels like we were robbed of something that could be extremely special for a franchise that hasn’t had anything truly special since the dynasty days. That’s what will always sting, especially as other teams keep their franchise players with them for basically their whole careers. Tavares was supposed to be the player who brought the glory back to the Islanders, not the guy who stabbed the team in the back on the way out.