With the NHL trade-rumor market largely quiet until the offseason, media attention is turning toward this summer’s unrestricted free-agent market. Much of the focus is on New York Islanders center John Tavares.
As the most talented player available in this summer’s free-agent market, Tavares is poised to land the biggest contract of his career. While there’s no indication yet what his asking price might be, it could go as high as $12-million annually on a seven-year deal.
Since last summer, Tavares’ future with the Islanders has become a hot topic among NHL followers. Will the 27-year-old Islanders captain re-sign with the only NHL club he’s ever played for? Or will he test free agency on July 1 in hopes of landing a lucrative, long-term contract with a potential Stanley Cup contender?
The longer Tavares remains unsigned, the more conjecture there will be over his plans.
Tavares is invaluable to the Islanders. He’s their franchise player, an elite scoring star and their main draw. Losing him to free agency would be a serious blow. If he goes to market, teams will line up for a crack at signing a high-scoring first-line center in the prime of his playing career.
The Hockey News‘ Jared Clinton last week wondered if the Islanders’ fading playoff hopes could affect their chances of re-signing their captain. On Feb. 26, however, Tavares told Newsday‘s Steven Marcus that staying with the Isles didn’t depend upon reaching the postseason this year.
Still, the possibility of Tavares becoming a free agent in July is already generating some speculation over his potential destinations.
Earlier this month, TSN’s Darren Dreger dismissed the notion of Tavares signing with the rebuilding New York Rangers. He thinks the center’s preference is to join a potential Stanley Cup contender. Dreger also suggested the St. Louis Blues, San Jose Sharks and Montreal Canadiens as prime contenders for Tavares.
Those three clubs possess considerable salary-cap space for 2018-19. Cap Friendly indicates the Blues carry over $60.8 million invested in 16 players, the Sharks have $58.7 million tied up in 18 players while the Canadiens have $63 million committed to 22 players. Assuming a salary-cap ceiling of $80 million for next season, that’s more than enough for those clubs to make a big-money pitch to Tavares come July 1.
The Buffalo Sabres ($56.2 million in 16 players for ’18-’19), Carolina Hurricanes ($48.4 million for 12 players) and Detroit Red Wings ($57.7 million in 15 players) could accelerate their rebuilding efforts with a superstar such as Tavares. If his intent is to join a future Cup contender, those three teams could be out of the running. Same goes for the Canadiens.
Signing with a true Stanley Cup contender could prove difficult for Tavares. Of the aforementioned clubs, the Blues and Sharks are the closest to contender status. However, they’re not in the same class as the Tampa Bay Lightning, Pittsburgh Penguins or Nashville Predators, all of whom are already loaded with talented centers.
Tavares becomes a focal point for the Toronto media whenever the Mississauga native and the Islanders come to town to face the Maple Leafs. They’ll also have considerable cap room ($49.7 million invested in 16 players) this summer. Landing Tavares could put the steadily improving Leafs over the top.
But Toronto already has a top-line center in 20-year-old Auston Matthews, who has only scratched the surface of his incredible potential. Nazem Kadri and William Nylander are quality centers in their own right. The Maple Leafs biggest need is a skilled, established top-two defenseman. Blowing a big chunk of their salary-cap room pursuing Tavares won’t address that issue.
Should Tavares decide to join a Cup contender, he could be forced to accept less than market value for the privilege. Otherwise, he’ll have to carefully consider which clubs have both the most potential to become contenders within the next two or three years as well as the cap room to absorb his expensive new contract.
If those options aren’t available, Tavares could decide his future remains with the Islanders. They’ll happily pay his asking price on an eight-year deal to keep him in the fold.