TORONTO (Jan. 25) — In many ways, beginning the National Hockey League season with a 5–2–0 record after seven games is a form of voodoo for the Toronto Maple Leafs. So apparently famished are the observers of the longest current Stanley Cup drought that any morsel of an early trend becomes instantly conclusive.
It happened again this week when the Toronto Star assured readers that the remaining five years of John Tavares’s contract will not be an issue. As per the headline to a story by veteran beat–reporter Kevin McGran: “THE LEAFS ARE GETTING THE BEST OF JOHN TAVARES. NO ONE’S TALKING ABOUT HIS CONTRACT NOW.” Of course, Kevin did not craft the title to his submission, which began: “Perhaps the best thing about the early part of this Maple Leafs season is that John Tavares looks like a younger version of himself. He seems faster. Coach Sheldon Keefe said as much a couple of days ago. He seems to dominate shifts. He’s winning faceoffs, making plays and scoring goals.” All of which was true. Also indisputable was that Tavares, when McGran wrote his story, had played a grand total of 11 games in the previous 10–plus months, dating to when COVID–19 forced suspension of the NHL schedule last March 12. There were five games against Columbus in the qualifying playoff round in August… and six to begin the current season. It’s possible that John Tavares’s grandfather would look “fresh” and “young” amid such a puny workload.
Why, then, extrapolate over five years? Moreover, why should there be any mention, or discussion, of a player’s contract after only half–a–dozen games? This was classic Toronto media blather in the Millennium of Overkill, imbuing skittish supporters of the Maple Leafs with a wildly premature inference.
JOHN TAVARES SQUARES OFF AGAINST CONNOR McDAVID LAST WEEK AT SCOTIABANK ARENA. GETTY IMAGES/NHL
Allow me to backtrack for a moment and state the obvious: This is not an indictment of John Tavares. The late George Armstrong was undoubtedly proud to have such a consummate professional wearing the ‘C’ on the blue and white jersey. Nor is it incomprehensible that Tavares merely slumped last season and is re–establishing the form displayed while erupting for a career–best 47 goals with the Leafs in 2018–19. But, neither can we disregard that Tavares, at 30 and past his physical prime, lost a considerable step for much of the abbreviated schedule a year ago. Bringing into question the potentially remote value of his $11 million salary cap–hit moving forward, particularly in the last two or three years of the contract signed in July 2018. To even imply that appearing robust after 11 games in more than a 10–month span nullifies any such apprehension is absurd. Yet, that was the message in the headline to McGran’s story on the weekend.
And, it’s likely among the reasons the Maple Leafs crumble each spring. Leaping to such irrational conclusions in a minuscule span places an untenable burden on those that wear the Blue and White. It establishes improbable expectation, even among those that claim to ignore the ubiquitous Toronto media.
Concurrently, a youthful, unsuspecting hockey fan reading the Star headline on Saturday could become aghast if Tavares begins to scuffle two months from now, in the teeth of the busy, 56–game schedule. Which is hardly out of the question after last season, when his closing speed on the attack clearly regressed. But, “no one talking about” Johnny T’s contract insinuated that any concern, moving forward, has been abolished.
Which was many miles beyond deceptive.