Tavares Signing Destroyed The Leafs

TORONTO (June 14) — This blog intends no disrespect toward one of most–dignified players in the modern history of the Toronto Maple Leafs. And, we are delighted that he quickly recovered from the horrific collision with Corey Perry’s knee–pad in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs against Montreal. But, John Tavares unwittingly destroyed the Blue and White when he signed that seven–year, $77 million contract on July 1, 2018.

Not that Johnny T. wasn’t worthy of the term or salary. Or, that the Maple Leafs shouldn’t have been commended for aggressively pursuing the top prize on the open market (you’ll remember the city wide elation when Tavares left the New York Islanders to come “home”). Not once, however, in the quarter–century–plus of unrestricted free agency have the Leafs blundered so extensively. They entered, that summer day, into a marriage made in hell.

This opinion is not remotely related to the splendid performance of the Islanders in the three National Hockey League seasons since losing their captain and most–identifiable star. Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz deserve immense credit for building a club capable of withstanding such an apparent deficit. Rather, it is a reflection of incredulity that such experienced hockey men as Brendan Shanahan and then–coach Mike Babcock truly felt that a whopping $11 million of salary cap space should be committed to another skilled forward. With all of the club’s Big 3 draft choices — William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews — still requiring contracts beyond entry level restriction. And, in the interminable absence of a comparable figure on defense. Hoarding this embarrassment of riches was an enormous strategic miscalculation by the Leafs. And, not exclusively in hindsight.

Many hockey observers wondered, at the time, why the Maple Leafs allocated such a sizable portion of the cap to a goal scorer, understanding the financial commitments that lay ahead. Did management believe it could low–ball agents for the Big 3 in their first contract negotiations? Or that a reasonable detachment of support skaters (19 in all) could be obtained with less than half the payroll allowance? That decision, three summers ago, is indefensible. And, would be, today, even if Marner and Matthews had shown some pizzazz in Stanley Cup competition. It is merely exacerbated by the post–season failure, thus far, of the club’s two most–talented youngsters.


JOHN TAVARES IS AN EXEMPLARY CAPTAIN AND AN UPSTANDING INDIVIDUAL. BUT, THE LEAFS BLEW IT — BIG TIME — WHEN THEY COMMITTED $11 MILLION OF CAP ALLOTMENT TO HIM THREE SUMMERS AGO. GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM

It has put the Leafs in an untenable position, heightened by the claim that management will persist with a demonstrated playoff dearth. Perhaps Shanahan’s remarks after the opening–round collapse against the Canadiens were not born of obstinacy, as they appeared at the time. Maybe the Leafs’ president is reluctantly convinced, as are countless others, that he and general manager Kyle Dubas have no other choice. It’s an hypothesis, today, because we don’t know how the club would have appropriated the $11 million of cap consumption had it not signed Tavares. If, however, the bulk of that figure were accessible, the Leafs would be in position, for example, to negotiate with pending free agent blue–liner Dougie Hamilton — playing, at age 27, the best hockey of his career (42 points in 55 games and a plus–20 with Carolina). Or, to trade future components for Seth Jones of Columbus, still with a manageable $5.4 million of contract control next season. Until the Leafs develop a front–line defenseman (they haven’t since Borje Salming in the early–1970’s), the club will be forced to pursue trades and free agents; the latter commanding an exorbitance of term and salary. It’s a vicious cycle with no apparent escape.

The Leafs, of course, could not have envisioned a world pandemic and a flat salary limit. But, it still doesn’t rationalize the outrageous splurge on an element the club had spent three summers enhancing via the draft.

The only reasonable outlet is one that management has vowed to somehow circumvent: unloading one of Nylander, Marner or Matthews (Tavares would not have signed anywhere in 2018 without full, no–movement privileges). How roster balance and a potential Stanley Cup challenge can materialize by remaining status quo is anyone’s guess. In a best–case scenario, Rasmus Sandin evolves into an elite blue–liner while still under entry level constraint. It would enable the Leafs to move on from the still–competent Morgan Rielly before having to raise his salary well beyond $5 million next summer. Equally helpful would be Marner and Matthews learning to not only sustain regular–season brilliance in the playoffs, but to lift their performance commensurately with each Stanley Cup round. At the moment, however, all three wishes are an illusion (though Sandin has shown some promise).

You can criticize Dubas for overcompensating Marner and Matthews, but both would have landed similar deals elsewhere. It’s the $11 million locked up in Tavares that has most–damagingly restrained the Blue and White.

To an increasing measure over the next four years, as the elegant Torontonian ages.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

21 comments on “Tavares Signing Destroyed The Leafs

  1. I disagree with you on this one. The Leafs issues all stem from having a very weak D with only Brodie, Muzzin and Reilly being of decent quality and Reilly being deeply flawed. The inept GM has no clue how to fill out his roster with physical D who can skate and don’t make a lot of cash like, say, the Islanders? Analytics cannot measure the value of a D who can disrupt the cycle, push forwards out from in front of the net, etc. Getting rid of this management group is essential. Also, it is frustrating watching players let go by the Leafs play vital roles for the Islanders because their value is not calculated analytically. Hockey is not baseball.

    1. We don’t disagree at all. Your theory has been my mantra for the past decade. But, the Tavares contract has disabled the Leafs from pursuing such a defenseman.

  2. Great article Howard. I wonder what this team would look like if Lou was still running the show

  3. I agree we should not have signed him for that amount of money. It was that signing that put the for sale sign on Kadri. He wasn’t effective as a third line center for the money he was making. However a Matthews followed up by Kadri at #2 would have gave us 11 million to plug holes elsewhere. Now we have no Kadri, no 11 million to spend and lots of holes.

  4. I disagree Tavares contract is not the entire problem. If the Leafs had not secured Matthews, Marner and Nylander to more reasonable contracts that allowed the Leafs to acquire more skill and grit personnel to compliment the high end guys. The other “killer” is a salary cap that is not increasing at reasonable levels thank to something called a pandemic. No one person predicted back whrn when Tavares signed that there wiyld be NO increases in the cap for up to three years potentially., this past season and upcoming two seasons negotiated with NHL and NHLPA thanks to lack of league revenue and escrow Where would Leafs be if the cap space had gone in those years makes keeping and acquiring players a lot easier.

    1. I disagree. Tavares at $11M gave Matthews a target with Marner not far behind. Matthews was not going to take less than JT, being the team’s best player. And every team is working with the same salary cap structure.

  5. The entire saga plays out differently if JT signs for $10M (hometown discount since he said he wanted to come home, right?), Mathews then signs for $10, Marner for $9M, and Nylander for $6. $5M saved could have got us depth on D.

  6. Picking through the bargain bin and pulling out a “Jolting Joe Thornton” rather than a “Jolly Zdeno Giant” probably cost Toronto the Montreal series but I can’t fault Dubas for going for it.
    I like the team, it is exciting to watch Toronto play hockey. Matthew’s 2-way game improved this year. I love watching him backcheck. I also saw empirical evidence that MM can forecheck.
    Yes, Tavares hasn’t been the same since he was named Captain, but he also doesn’t have a crafty assist-machine like Marner on his wing. Coach Quinn would move some guys up the lineup and others to the press-box to squeeze some more hockey out of them. I’d like to see Tavares play with Marner or someone like Marner who can pass him the puck.
    MLSE would be wise to add the “Junk Yard Dog” to their NBA coaching staff if they are going all-in on the Seth Jones Lotto. I would! Jerome Williams was so popular when he played here he could have run for mayor. Imagine having the City’s Mayor suiting up for a professional sports team as a side hussle. Maddness!

  7. Tavares was certainly paid a premium. And it did contribute to an already existing imbalance. Yet negotiating with Matthews, Marner, and Nylander as though they were UFAs was just as destructive and possibly worse. Yes, Matthews and Marner could have signed elsewhere, but not without significant draft-pick compensation to the Leafs that would still be benefiting the team. I do not think any team would have traded 5 1st-round picks to sign Matthews or Marner for $11M/yr.

    In addition to these financial challenges, the Maple Leafs have received no support from the draft for five straight years (Auston Matthews aside). Since 2016, Auston Matthews aside, Maple Leafs draft picks have scored 2 regular-season goals for the team (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Toronto_Maple_Leafs_draft_picks). Impossible to win with that dearth of draft success.

    I think you are right-on that the Leafs have no option but to play their current hand until the contracts expire or the cap increases to decrease the percentage being eaten by four salaries.

  8. I agree that the Tavares signing was destructive and unnecessary, but I think it was just the first in a series of stupid pet tricks, borne out of arrogance by the organization and it’s leadership.
    “We can and we will.”, was Dubas’ (snotty, in my view) answer about signing and thereby keeping their drafted top level talent, completely ignored the more important question being, “Why should you?” after signing Tavares.
    It should be obvious to the leadership that this top heavy assembly will not allow enough flexibility to improve quality or depth throughout the lineup, especially after watching Vegas and the other teams currently playing.

  9. Right on Howard. The Leafs did not need JT. They would have been far better off using that 11M on a couple of 5.5M Dmen.
    As currently constructed, Dufas has a great team in PS5………………

  10. I agree with this opinion. Tavares was an unnecesary luxury with Matthews and possibly Nylander playing centre. The contract is not just the 11 million but created the target for Matthews and Marner contracts. It would have been easier for the Leafs tell Matthews and Marner to accept a smaller amount if they had not splashed on Tavares. Even if both take 1 million less, Tavares meant 15 million dollars on a 85 million cap. If even possible, the Leafs need to raise Tavares and try to trade him. A 11 million dollar second line centre is not a way to win the cup and his production could likely drop in upcoming years as an additional risk. The public notion of keeping all 4 guys is counterproductive.

  11. Let’s not blame it on Tavares signing. The facts are 2 10 million plus players gave us nothing in the last 3 games against Montreal. Maybe if Tavares was playing he would have won us the series. Glass half full my friend. Kerfoot is overpaid , Nylander is overpaid , Hyman might be overpaid, Mikyhev did nothing in the playoffs. Thornton was unfortunately too old. Those are the issues. Robertson should have gotten a chance like Canfield. Inject some younger players Maybe next year!!

      1. Good old Howard, can’t make an argument without insulting the Leaf fans.

        I happen to agree Tavares was an unnecessary pickup, whose cap definitely set the bar for Marner and Matthews’ contracts.

        But, again, Howard don’t resort to taking generalized shots at the people who read your blog. It’s childish and ungrateful.

    1. Agree, as it turned out, $34M of their cap put nothing on the board. That’s what hurt them (as it would have any other team).

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