Should the Leafs “Wait” For Tavares

TORONTO (Apr. 25) — Yes, you’re probably chuckling at the headline to this blog. Truth be told, so am I.

That said, however, weren’t we all chuckling two years ago at the notion of Steven Stamkos leaving the Tampa Bay Lightning? How on earth, we scoffed, could a club in the National Hockey League sunbelt, of all places, allow its marquee attraction to walk away in free agency? It ain’t so much of a joke anymore, is it?

Similarly — and with an exclamation mark after Sunday night’s playoff classic in Brooklyn — how can any of us envision John Tavares parting with the New York Islanders in just more than two years? Surely, the Isles will lock up their star center for the remainder of his NHL prime well before July 1, 2018. Won’t they?

I suspect the answer is “probably.”

For the sake of argument, however, let’s assume (in the following paragraphs) that Tavares is somehow available two summers from now. Managing a team in the NHL’s salary cap era is largely about projection. As such, the Toronto Maple Leafs have — since last July — created a cap environment that could accommodate such a premier talent as Stamkos. If the Markham, Ont. native gets to free agency this summer and joins the Leafs (which I contend is doubtful), there will be no further speculation about Tavares. Unless, of course, the cap figure bloats toward $130 million by 2018. Which isn’t going to happen.

So, now, you are Brendan Shanahan and Lou Lamoriello. While in projection mode — and if presented a choice — do you commit your financial future to Stamkos this summer… or, do you continue building your hockey club methodically and look toward the potential of adding Tavares in 2018? For those unaware, Johnny T. singularly lifted the Islanders past Florida in Game 6 of the opening Stanley Cup round Sunday night — scoring to tie the match at 19:06 of the third period; and then winning it (2–1) at 10:41 of double–overtime. Were it not for the frightening diagnosis of a blood–clot in his shoulder (treated surgically), Stamkos would encounter Tavares in the next playoff round with T–Bay and the Islanders hooking up.


If fully recovered from his blood clot — and they can be tricky — Stamkos would provide the Leafs years of quality sniping. Is he, however, interested in joining a club that finished dead–last in the overall standings?

Won’t he, if available in July, receive at least one commensurate offer from an elite team? And, isn’t it too early in their development for the Maple Leafs to strangle cap room? Tavares, from Mississauga, Ont., will be 27 in the summer of 2018. He proved again on Sunday why he’s in the conversation with Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Anze Kopitar and Tyler Seguin among the premier center–men in the league. If the Leafs are fortunate enough to win the draft lottery on Saturday night, they’ll land Auston Matthews. Last year’s No. 4 pick, Mitch Marner, is tearing it up with London in the junior playoffs. How about a 2018–19 center core of Tavares, Matthews, Marner and Nazem Kadri (with Willie Nylander playing right–wing)?

To me, it is more sensible for the Leafs to wait a couple of years before adding a cap–choker. To see where they rank in the building process; to ensure they have a legitimate No. 1 goalie and a big, rangy “horse” on the blue–line. That doesn’t mean adding Stamkos this summer will derail the process. But, it may be too early and it could easily limit the club’s options moving forward with respect to the cap figure.

So, yes, the notion of Johnny T. wearing blue and white may entice a guffaw right now.

But, let’s see where we are in 24 months.


Tavares provided the Islanders their first playoff–series victory — and first decided by an overtime goal — since a colossal upset of the two–time Stanley Cup–champion Pittsburgh Penguins in May 1993. Hockey Night In Canada rink–rat Glenn Healy was in goal for the Islanders on May 14 of that year — a Friday night — when the unheralded David Volek beat Tom Barrasso with a slap–shot in Game 7 of the Conference semifinal at the old Pittsburgh Civic Arena. The Czech–born winger took a feed from line–mate Ray Ferraro, currently TSN’s No. 1 ice–level analyst. For a local perspective here in Toronto, it was the night before the Leafs of Pat Burns and Doug Gilmour hammered Curtis Joseph and the St. Louis Blues, 6–0, in Game 7 of the Campbell Conference semifinal at Maple Leaf Gardens. Toronto went on to play Los Angeles in the Conference final; the Islanders faced Montreal for the Prince of Wales title in the East. The Canadiens then upended Wayne Gretzky and the Kings in five games to win their most recent Stanley Cup.

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Can it get any better than tonight?

There’s been some terrific hockey in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The aforementioned Florida–Islanders series twice went to double–overtime and Minnesota nearly overcame a 4–0 third period deficit at home yesterday afternoon against Dallas. Ultimately, the Stars hung on to win, 5–4, and eliminate the Wild in six games (TV images, below, from the Xcel Energy Center). Dallas will play the winner of the St. Louis–Chicago series which wraps up tonight in Game 7 at the Scottrade Center.

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The Blues and Blackhawks have also twice skated beyond regulation time and Chicago has clawed back from a 3–1 series deficit. Something tells me tonight’s match will be memorable. Having gone down in the first round of the Stanley Cup tournament for the past three years, St. Louis needs this game to expunge its tag as a playoff dog… and, quite possibly, to preserve the employment of head coach Ken Hitchcock. For Chicago, a road triumph would complete another remarkable playoff chapter and allow Toews, Patrick Kane and Co. to continue toward a legitimate dynasty: four Stanley Cup titles in seven years.

Of course, St. Louis and Chicago is a long–standing rivalry, crafted during the 1980’s and 90’s in the old Norris Division. This is the 12th playoff match–up between the clubs since 1973; the Blackhawks hold an 8–3 edge. In fact, the Blues and Blackhawks have been squaring off since November of 1967, when St. Louis was one of six NHL expansion teams. For posterity, I went back in my collection of THE HOCKEY NEWS to view the first meetings between the clubs — in each city:


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4 comments on “Should the Leafs “Wait” For Tavares

  1. The Tavares goal at 19:06 was a tap in which should never have even happened. If Luongo takes a look around and covers the puck there is not even an overtime. The overtime goal was another mistake by Luongo being too far out of the crease. Sure Tavares is good but in my opinion the Panthers were the better team but were just out lucked so Tavares is getting a lot of credit here he doesn’t deserve.

    Marner now has 35 points in 13 playoff games and Nylander has already looked impressive in the NHL – then yopu have another top four pick in this draft. These young kids are going to make the Leafs good and the Leafs are going to have to pay them big bucks. My question is do the Leafs really want to spend $10 million or more on a Stamkos or Tavares? I think they have – or will have the offence and spending the money on defense and goal would make a lot more sense.

    1. I’m 64 years old and I guess I have had the blue and white glasses all my life. I remember back in 1970 telling my buddies bringing back Bobby Baun was going to make the difference. They were pretty dumb I guess and thought I had a valid point. Then I took a lot of flak in 1980 when the Leafs brought back 42 year old Carl Brewer. My buddies were a little smarter then and now I am used to the laughter on every move the Leafs made for a long time. But it is changing, not so much laughter lately.

      Maybe I am still dreaming but just maybe the Leafs have actually finally got it right. Marner turns into a Patrick Kane and Nylander is even better than Marner. And then you have Hyman, Soshnikov, Kapinen, Brown and a dozen other kids on the Marlies? All of the analysts are all saying they are all going to be good NHL players.

      It is very easy to look at the Leafs right now and say they are still five years away. Maybe they are and I am still dreaming but maybe for once the Leafs will surprise everyone – except of course myself. I have known now for 50 years they were going to win it all – and I am pretty sure I will right and hopefully before I die.

  2. Great column Howard, I really enjoy the historical stuff as well. You and Brian McFarlane are the storytellers of hockey history, and I hope both of you will be doing it for a long time to come. By the way, I’m good friends with Al Craig, formerly of 900 CHML in Hamilton, and he always tells me that he and Howard Berger are the only 2 people that know about Jan. 18, 1964, Boston 11, Toronto 0. Keep up the great work.

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