July 1 is a big day north of the border. Yeah, it’s Canada Day, so there’s already a lot of celebrating going on. But it’s also when the NHL’s free agent season begins, so there’s plenty of hype and excitement around that every year. This year, however, featured the John Tavares Sweepstakes, so the hype was in overdrive. And the fact that Tavares signed a 7-year, $77 million deal with Toronto today just amped that up exponentially.
I just spent a week up in Toronto and speculation was at a fever pitch, especially given that the Leafs were one of the teams in the hunt for the 27-year-old center. Six teams (Toronto, San Jose, Boston, Dallas, Tampa Bay and the Islanders) had all flown delegations to Los Angeles to meet with Tavares and his agent and make their pitch for his services. The Canadian media was there in force, stationing reporters on the sidewalk outside for hours to hunt for scraps of information that didn’t come.
There was definitely a feeling of restraint among Leafs fans (myself included), given the disappointments of past free agent seasons—most recently in 2016, when the Leafs tried to woo Steven Stamkos but ultimately saw him re-sign with the Lightning. By yesterday, there were reports that the Leafs and Sharks were the finalists along with the Isles; Tavares could have gotten an eighth year if he signed with the Islanders before midnight, but he didn’t, so it appeared they were out of the hunt. Twitter was full of anxiety-ridden hockey fans waiting for a decision all weekend and finally around 1 p.m. Sunday, it came. The native of Mississauga, Ontario (a Toronto suburb) chose his hometown team.
For Leafs fans, it was the team’s biggest free agent signing ever. Toronto has signed big names in the past (Eric Lindros, Ed Belfour, Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts, Alex Mogilny), but they’ve usually been in the twilight of their careers. Arguably ,the best Leafs’ free agent acquisition was Curtis Joseph in 1998, who backstopped the team to some decent playoff runs over the next four years. There have been some major busts, like David Clarkson (signed in 2013 to seven years and $36 million), Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin and the immortal Jeff Finger (Who? Exactly).
This isn’t that. In Tavares, Toronto gets a franchise center in his prime who’s been overshadowed by the likes of Crosby, Ovechkin and Kane over his nine seasons in the NHL. He’s also been stuck on an Islanders team that has gone through some serious turmoil during that time, with unstable ownership, bad management and an uncertain arena situation.
Now he’s going to a Leafs team that is already stacked with young talent: Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander lead a speedy, skilled squad that has made the playoffs the last two years but is looking to take the next step. The Leafs lost some players from last year’s squad to free agency: James Van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov (who current Isles/former Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello inexplicably signed to a four-year contract today) and Roman Polak. One glaring weakness was the right side of the defense, which in this past spring’s playoffs featured Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev and Polak and was victimized repeatedly by the Bruins in Boston’s seven-game victory. New GM Kyle Dubas still has moves to make, so we’ll reserve judgment just yet.
But right now, it’s a matter of gleefully thinking about top three forward line combinations, like this:
Patrick Marleau -Tavares-Marner
Andreas Johnsson-Nazem Kadri-Kasperi Kapanen
The fourth line is still a work in progress, since Tomas Plekanec has re-signed with Montreal. Connor Brown will slot in, but beyond that could be solved by additional free agent signings or promotions from the Leafs’ AHL champion farm team, the Toronto Marlies.
Are the Leafs now a Cup contender? I’d say they’re getting closer. Remember, the Penguins won two straight Cups and the Golden Knights made it to the final this year with defensive squads that were not ranked at the top of the league. There are some more pieces to the puzzle for Toronto, but getting a top player like Tavares is a major step.
The signing also means Dubas will have to get creative over the next few years as Matthews, Marner and Nylander all will be restricted free agents coming off their rookie contracts. Does Dubas move Nylander for a top d-man, or does he keep his stacked offense intact and look for a less expensive defense answer? The Leafs have some decent young d-men in their farm system, including last year’s top pick Timothy Liljegren. Goalie Frederik Andersen has proven he’s a #1, but he could use a little rest in the regular season; he played 66 games in 2017-18 and looked fatigued at times in the playoffs, especially given how much he had to do. Dubas may want to promote Garret Sparks, who had a spectacular year for the Marlies (31-9-1, 1.79 GAA and another 14 years on the way to the Calder Cup) and could provide Andersen with 25-30 games of quality relief.
These are good problems to have, and as a long-suffering Leafs fan, things look a damn sight better than they did 10, five or even two years ago. Leafs Nation remains the butt of jokes from many fanbases across the league (especially here in Boston), but Dubas, Tavares and co. have a good chance of ending that in the next few years. It’s a good time to be a Maple Leafs fan, for once.